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A letter from Israel

Long-read

A letter from Israel

Israelis are divided by politics, but united in their determination to survive.

Rob Killick

Topics Long-reads Politics World

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‘Hamas must be eradicated.’

You can rely on taxi drivers the world over to deliver blunt opinions. Unusually for Israel today, my taxi driver is a Netanyahu supporter. He has lost family in the war with Hamas. ‘Our minds were broken’, he says of the 7 October atrocities, ‘but now we are fighting back’. This, I soon discovered, is a common sentiment in Israel. Netanyahu remains deeply unpopular, but the war on Hamas is the one policy of his that the vast majority of Israelis back.

I ask the taxi driver if the pressure from the US and the rest of the outside world to hold back is having any effect. ‘No’, he says, ‘nobody likes us now, but they will respect us when we win’.

The south

My two-week stay in Israel began in Tel Aviv, at the main station, Savidor. It looks like a normal rush hour, except for the fact a large proportion of the commuters are in army uniform. Many look ridiculously young – just kids, really. Their uniforms often don’t fit very well. But there are also serious-looking men and women in smarter uniforms, all carrying submachine guns. This is what a nation under arms looks like.

From Tel Aviv, we head to Ashkelon, just north of Gaza. This is the terminus, as the line further south runs too close to the Gaza border to be safe. On arrival, the train empties and I am surrounded by soldiers waiting to be picked up and deployed. It’s from Ashkelon that I meet the taxi driver, who takes me further south, to Sderot.

As I’m being driven through the military checkpoint at the entrance to Sderot, I hear the boom of Israeli artillery. The intermittent barrages will become a permanent feature of my 10-day stay in the Gaza Envelope, the towns and villages of Israel that run to the east of the Gaza Strip.

I am joining up with Livnot, a volunteer organisation based in Sderot, which is dedicated to renovating and fixing buildings in the Gaza Envelope. Sderot is a town of just over 30,000 and only one mile from the border of northern Gaza. On 7 October – always known here as 7/10 – Hamas terrorists invaded without warning, killing at least 50 civilians and 20 police officers, before eventually occupying the Sderot police station. Rather than risk losing any more lives, an IDF tank destroyed the police station with the terrorists inside it.

Israeli rescue workers at Sderot police station after it was destroyed in a battle between Israeli troops and Hamas militants, 8 October 2023.
Israeli rescue workers at Sderot police station after it was destroyed in a battle between Israeli troops and Hamas militants, 8 October 2023.

Sderot is still far from secure, though. There was a rocket attack there the night before I arrived, intercepted by Israel’s missile-defence system, the Iron Dome. When I arrive at the Livnot dormitory, I am immediately shown where the safe room is and told to go there should the alarm go off.

At first glance, Sderot and the area surrounding it could be mistaken for southern California. Many houses are big and modern. Some have swimming pools. There are orange and lemon groves, which are already in full fruit. The weather is perfect, the roads are busy and the local people look prosperous. But unlike California, there are soldiers everywhere.

Those volunteering at Livnot are almost all from the US, particularly New York and the West Coast. There are a few young people, but most of the volunteers are in their fifties or older – one man is in his eighties. Some are very obviously religious and some aren’t. Some are Democrats and some Republicans. Many but not all speak Hebrew.

What they all share is their Jewishness and, sadly, a sense of hopelessness. Nobody I speak to thinks there is any workable solution. None of them believes Jews’ isolation can be overcome, either in America or Israel. One of the West Coast volunteers tells me that Jews in America are getting guns, often for the first time, such is their fear. Another tells me that when she asked her rabbi why everybody hated Jews so much, he replied: ‘If they did not hate us we would not exist.’

Nova and Re’im

We’re at the Nova festival site, where Hamas murdered 364 partygoers and took 40 hostages. Avi, an army officer, is reminding us of the carnage just as four very loud explosions go off. They are loud enough and close enough to make everybody jump. The officer points to the smoke rising a mile or two away and says, ‘there is good news and bad news – the good news is that it is ours, the bad news is we only use artillery this close to support the infantry’. Gaza is not yet fully conquered.

Later, I am sitting in the back garden of Avi’s house, talking. He points to a building across the field behind his house. It is a battery of the Iron Dome defence system. He takes out his phone and shows me a film he recorded of the Iron Dome in action, reducing rockets from Gaza to distant puffs of smoke. Many have told me that the effectiveness of the Iron Dome lulled Israelis into a false sense of security before 7 October.

A day later, we are repainting the barracks at Re’im, which is close to the Nova festival site. This is the main communications centre for surveillance of Gaza. It is 91 degrees in the shade and we are not in the shade.

An Israeli soldier pays a tribute for a victim of the massacre at the Nova festival, in Re'im, 25 March 2024.
An Israeli soldier pays a tribute for a victim of the massacre at the Nova festival, in Re'im, 25 March 2024.

The barracks were attacked and briefly occupied on 7 October, before the IDF managed to kill all 40 terrorists. The IDF lost 12 soldiers during the battle. At lunch, in a packed army canteen, two army psychiatrists tell me that this is the first time most of the soldiers here had seen active service. Some are having a tough time, the psychiatrists say – before picking up their guns to leave.

The next day, we are clearing out a big house which had until recently been used as an army billet. We find a pile of flak jackets taken from terrorists, the remnants of a US Hellfire rocket used by Israel and a deck of cards with terrorists’ faces on it. One of the volunteers in our group is an Israeli boy called Eli. He is 18. He’s joining the Givati Brigade, the main battle group in Gaza, in two weeks.

Eli is shocked when I tell him that many Jews now feel uncomfortable wearing a kippah in London. But he is also very pleased, as were the others with us, to see the footage of the first counter-protest to the pro-Palestine demos in London. One thing is becoming clear to me. Every and any protest in support of Israel has a massively positive impact on Israelis.

Magen

About five miles from the central Gazan border is Magen, a kibbutz of around 500 people. We are taken there to meet a man called Isi. He is in his fifties, carrying a submachine gun and part of a 15-man civil-defence unit. From the hill in the middle of the kibbutz you can see the Gazan city of Khan Yunis. As Isi is speaking about 7 October, there are two loud explosions over the border, and we see columns of smoke once again rise above Khan Yunis.

On the morning of 7 October, one of the men in Magen saw a column of pickup trucks and motorbikes coming from the next kibbutz, Nir Oz, which is about a mile away. He knew something was very wrong, so he called the rest of the civil-defence unit. They got their guns and lined up at the top of the hill.

They were subsequently involved in a three-hour fire fight, before the 50-or-so terrorists moved on to the next kibbutz. The army did not arrive until three hours later. An estimated 50 people were killed at Nir Oz and 71 were taken hostage. At Magen, just two were killed.

There was a backstory here. A year earlier, the army called in all weapons held in private hands following a few accidents and thefts. The people of Magen refused, but those at Nir Oz handed their guns over.

Israeli civilians won’t make that mistake again. One reserve officer tells me that when his tour is over he will be keeping his gun. As another local man in Sderot puts it, ‘We used to think of the army as our mum and dad protecting us. Not anymore.’

Back at the Livnot centre in Sderot, we meet Shiran, the owner of the house in which we are staying. On 7 October, they were trapped in the house, unarmed, for 26 hours with five small children. While she and her children stayed in the safe room, her husband sat for 26 hours by the door with two knives in his hands ready to fight against men armed with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. Their best friends, Odaya and Dolev Swissa, were both killed in front of their two small children outside the police station. ‘I used to think we could live in peace, but no more’, says Shiran.

The north

After several days in Sderot in the south, I travel by train to the northern city of Tzfat in Galilee, seven miles from the border with Lebanon. Compared with the arid environs of Sderot, the countryside here is mountainous and lush. But as an army officer explains, Tzfat’s proximity to Lebanon and Hezbollah makes it very dangerous.

He tells me that after 7 October his unit drove its tanks north and parked them, ready for a Hezbollah assault. Another soldier explains that the regular soldiers are living in their tanks up there for weeks. If they open the turrets, Hezbollah will use drones to shoot them. So they have to stay in their tanks – although they do apparently have aircon.

A view of a car damaged by a rocket fired from Lebanon by Hezbollah, in Metula, Israel, 19 March 2024.
A view of a car damaged by a rocket fired from Lebanon by Hezbollah, in Metula, Israel, 19 March 2024.

Most places north of Tzfat, a very orthodox city, have been evacuated, but here people are celebrating Shabbat. The synagogues are packed with ultra-orthodox Haredim and others on Friday night and all day Saturday.

I go for lunch on Shabbat with a local family in Tzfat. They are not as orthodox as most, but we still have prayers over the bread. Ronen, the father, owns an IT business, while his wife is a screenwriter. They say they feel fairly safe now that the border has been reinforced, but they also know that a full-scale invasion from Lebanon would not be easy to stop before it reaches them.

Ronen is very critical of the ‘left-wing’ generals and the civil service, and blames them for 7 October. He supports the West Bank settlers and also the arming of Israeli civilians. Like everybody else I have met here, he is fully supportive of the war effort.

They are embarrassingly grateful that I, as a non-Jew, am here and helping in Israel. They think the entire world is against them. Ronen tells me that part of the reason there is a lull in the fighting is that the Israeli arms industry is ramping up. The aim is for Israel to be less dependent on the US for military support.

His wife says that since 7 October large sections of previously left-wing kids have rallied behind the IDF’s invasion of Gaza. Unlike Western youths, these kids have seen their friends slaughtered. Sympathy for the ‘Palestinian cause’ is a luxury belief they cannot afford.

Ronen thinks that war with Hezbollah is coming. ‘We have to create a buffer zone in southern Lebanon’, he says, ‘or our people will not return’. He is referring to the 300,000 internally displaced Israelis, who are living in tents or hotel rooms away from the border areas.

1948

At the beautiful old Livnot centre in Tzfat, an Israeli is telling us what happened in the city in 1948, just before Britain’s departure and Israel’s independence. At the time, there were 12,000 Arabs in Tzfat and 1,700 Jews, living in a divided city. The British offered to take the Jews with them when they left as trouble was brewing. But the Jews refused. The British then offered to take only the women and children. Once again, the Jews refused. They knew they would fight harder if their families were with them.

After the Brits left, the Arabs rounded on the Jews. But there was a small, secretly armed Zionist Haganah group in Tzfat. Despite being vastly outnumbered, the Jews managed to not only hold their own, but also to launch an assault on the citadel, the highest point in the city. As they were attacking the citadel, a massive storm broke. The violent weather was unheard of in May.

When the Jews reached the citadel, they found it deserted. They pushed on into the Arab quarter the next day. Every house was empty. All the Arabs had fled.

An Israeli plane later reported that thousands of Arabs were running away along a dried-up river bed. Apparently, Arab propagandists had claimed that Jews in Israel had been given atomic technology by the Americans. So when the Arabs in Tzfat heard the loud bangs of the Jewish assault, and saw the colossal and unprecedented rainfall, the Arabs assumed they were witnessing the aftermath of a small atomic bomb. Sometimes conspiracy theories about Jews can rebound in their favour.

Jerusalem

I am in Jerusalem for a few days, towards the end of my fortnight in Israel. There is little sign of the war here. There are few soldiers on the street and there is no artillery sounding in the background. The Old City is packed with people eating, drinking and strolling.

People walk in the Old City, in Jerusalem, after the first Friday prayers of Ramadan, 15 March 2024.
People walk in the Old City, in Jerusalem, after the first Friday prayers of Ramadan, 15 March 2024.

I meet Carlo. He is a gay Italian catholic, the first other non-Jew I have met since I arrived. He says that he has experienced no hostility in Israel on account of his sexuality, and thinks Queers for Palestine activists are utterly insane. This is something I hear time and again during my stay.

The manager of my hotel has a brother who helped collect the bodies along the Gazan border after 7 October. He then spent three months on active service in Gaza. She is now worried about her brother’s state of mind. Her daughter lost two friends at the Nova festival. One was found days later, decapitated. It is hard to find an Israeli who has not lost family or friends in this war.

I walk through the Arab area of the Old City and it feels calm. It is nearly the last day of Ramadan and the widely expected trouble around the Al-Aqsa Mosque has not materialised. I ask Sol, a Moroccan Jew, if it is dangerous anywhere in Jerusalem. ‘No more than in any big city’, he says.

What next?

Explanations for how Hamas’s attack on 7 October was made possible are wide and varied. The right blames the army high command for being too left-wing and pro-Arab, and blames young people for dividing Israel over the controversial judicial reform bill. The left blames Netanyahu for focusing on politics rather than security.

There is also widespread distrust and fear about the spread of Islamic fundamentalism throughout the West. Many Israelis cannot understand why we do not understand that Israel is in the frontline of a wider struggle for democracy and civilisation. I do my best to explain that there are many in the UK and elsewhere who recognise the right and duty of Israelis to fight for their country. But when Israelis look at Western media, all they see and hear are ‘pro-Palestine’ protests and ‘pro-Palestine’ voices.

It is difficult for foreigners, especially non-Jews, to fully grasp the existential character of this conflict for Jews. This is a people who were murdered in their millions before and during the Second World War. Afterwards, they were unwanted and so they came to this patch of desert and mountains to build a fortress.

Today, Israel, a country the size of Wales, is surrounded by hostile nations and facing an almost constant insurgency. Israelis cannot afford the luxury of believing that they can survive without a fight.

But there remains a sense that things could have been different. Kibbutz Magen has a population of around 500. It is a prosperous-looking place. Low buildings with brown gabled roofs, lots of open spaces covered with lush grass. It is spring and there is pink blossom and white flowers everywhere you look. A herd of several hundred black and white cows is sheltering in assorted sheds. Swallows wheel in the air and hawks hover. All you can hear is birdsong. The occasional patches of wasteland are sandy, a reminder that this kibbutz is in the Negev desert – a desert that has been transformed.

The last thing Isi of Magen did as we left the hill, from which he and his friends fought off Hamas, was to gesture towards Khan Yunis. ‘This could have been a paradise for everybody’, he says.

Rob Killick is a writer based in London.

All pictures by: Getty.

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Topics Long-reads Politics World

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