Many Israelis blame Hamas for Gaza's suffering and have little sympathy

The southern Israeli town of Netivot, a working-class center for mystical rabbis about 10 miles from the Gaza border, escaped the worst of the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attack, a stroke of luck that many residents attribute to miraculous intervention of the Jewish sages buried here.

However, many here appear to show little concern for the suffering of Palestinian civilians – practically neighbors – across the Gaza fence.

Michael Zigdon, who runs a small food shack in the dilapidated Netivot market and had employed two Gazan men until the attack, expressed little sympathy for Gazans, who have endured a ferocious Israeli military attack for the past eight months.

“Who wants this war and who doesn't?” Mr. Zigdon said, as he wiped up red food coloring that had spilled from a crushed ice drink dispenser in his shack. “We weren't the ones who attacked them on October 7.”

Like many Israelis, Zigdon accused Hamas of settling into residential areas, endangering Gaza's civilians, while he himself blurs the distinction between Hamas fighters and the general population, as if everyone is complicit.

Israelis are still reeling from the trauma of what happened on October 7, when Hamas-led gunmen crossed the border, killing about 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and returning 250 others to Gaza, according to Israeli officials. It was the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust.

The pain, still raw, is increasingly superimposed on anger. Much of the collective Israeli psyche is locked away in self-protective layers of outrage as Israel faces international scorn for its continuation of the war and humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Most Israelis appear to be aware that their military's subsequent air and ground offensive in Gaza killed tens of thousands of Palestinians – many of them children, according to Gaza health officials – and caused widespread destruction in the coastal enclave . But they also saw videos of dozens of people in civilian clothes looting and attacking residents of rural Israeli villages during Hamas raids. While Palestinian polls show broad support among Gazans for the October 7 attack, some Palestinians have spoken out against the atrocities committed that day by Hamas and its allies.

Netivot is a bastion of political and religious conservatism: in the November 2022 elections, nearly 92% of the city's votes went to the parties that make up the hardline government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Over the years, armed groups from Gaza have launched volleys of rockets towards the city. One hit Netivot on October 7 and killed a 12-year-old boy, his father and his grandfather.

But the lack of sympathy for the plight of Gazans extends beyond Israel's traditional right-wing strongholds. Rachel Riemer, 72, a longtime resident of Urim, a left-liberal kibbutz or communal village, about 10 miles south of Netivot and a similar distance from the Gaza border, recalled that, during an earlier round of fighting, he had donated money for blankets for the children of Gaza.

“This time, I have no room in my heart to pity them,” he said of Gaza civilians. «I know there's a lot to pity about, rationally, I understand. But emotionally I can't.”

Many Israelis – both conservatives and liberals – blame Hamas for starting the war and for embedding its fighters among Gaza's population, operating, according to the military, outside schools, hospitals and mosques, and in tunnels under residents' homes of Gaza.

Many also see Gaza's civilians as complicit, at least ideologically, in the October 7 atrocities, saying they brought Hamas to power in the first place, in the 2006 Palestinian elections, and have not expressed much remorse – although Hamas has ruled Gaza since 2007 with little tolerance for any dissent, much less a new vote. As the war has dragged on, more and more Gazans have been willing to speak out against Hamas, risking retaliation.

The death toll in Gaza has risen to at least 37,000 since Israel began its ferocious offensive, according to Gaza's health ministry, which makes no distinction between fighters and civilians.

Hamas officials deny Israel's claims that it uses public facilities such as hospitals as cover for its military operations, despite some evidence to the contrary. And there is little escape for most of Gaza's 2.3 million residents, terrified and trapped in a narrow, crowded strip of land – tightly sealed off by Israel and Egypt – and with their backs to the sea, where a naval blockade is in force.

International organizations have also accused Israel of restricting aid entry, causing widespread hunger, even as Israeli officials say they have opened additional crossings for goods and blame aid groups for failing to distribute aid effectively. Most of Gaza's population has been displaced and more than half of the homes in the coastal enclave are believed to have been damaged or destroyed.

For much of the Israeli public, this war is very different from previous Arab-Israeli conflicts, said Avi Shilon, an Israeli historian based in Tel Aviv, explaining the apparent indifference to Palestinian suffering. Unlike the much shorter wars of 1967 or 1973, when state armies fought against state armies, this conflict is seen more as the 1948 war involving the creation of modern Israel, or through the prism of the Nazi genocide in Europe, he has declared.

Mr Shilon said he regarded every unintentional death as a “tragedy”. But the October 7 assault – when attackers killed people in their homes, at a music rave, in roadside bomb shelters and at military bases – was widely seen in Israel as “just an attempt to kill Jews,” Shilon said, turning the tables. transforming the war into a visceral battle: “It's us or them”.

Rony Baruch, 67, a potato farmer from Urim who also escaped the brunt of the October 7 attack, said the humanitarian crisis in Gaza was “terrible” and “painful” and that it was time to end to war. But he said he didn't think his opinion of him was representative. He also stressed that Israel was not the “bad guy” in this confrontation.

Many Israelis are left in a dark place. The Jewish media is still full of stories of loss and courage as of October 7. They watched gruesome videos of the October 7 atrocities filmed by Hamas gunmen, as well as videos of hostages released by the armed groups that held them.

Some survivors said they recognized Gazans they had previously employed among the infiltrators. Videos showed crowds jeering and insulting the hostages as they marched through Gaza on October 7. The June 8 rescue of four hostages came after months of reports of hostages killed in captivity and the military's recovery of the remains of some for burial in Gaza. Israel. The Israelis generally paid little attention to the high number of casualties that the rescue mission claimed on the Gaza side. Gaza health officials have reported more than 270 deaths, including children.

Israel's mainstream media rarely focuses on the suffering of Gaza's civilians and routinely features funerals and profiles of soldiers who died in battle. However, according to a survey this year, 87% of Israeli Jews reported seeing at least some photos or videos of the destruction of Gaza.

Israelis are divided, generally along political lines, and sometimes internally, on issues such as the provision of humanitarian aid.

“I have mixed emotions,” said Sarah Brien, 42, a Urim resident. “On the one hand, you are obliged as a country to international conventions. On the other hand you get nothing in return. Has any reliable organization seen any of the hostages? Who takes care of them?” The International Committee of the Red Cross said it had failed to gain access to the hostages.

Israelis acknowledge hunger in Gaza but accuse Hamas of stealing or diverting aid. Hamas officials deny stealing the aid, saying some desperate people looted the deliveries. Many Israelis have seen footage of starving Gazans crowding aid trucks. But many say they were also angered by images of Gazans flocking to the beach for respite while the hostages remain in the dark.

And some Israelis argue that the rest of the world moved on too quickly after October 7.

“The feeling is that for the world history began on October 8,” said Tamar Hermann, a political science professor and public opinion expert at the Israel Democracy Institute, a nonpartisan research group in Jerusalem. “They feel that not only do Gazans show no remorse, but that the world is undermining Israeli suffering.”

At the same time, there is little appetite in Israel to see Gaza's children starving.

“We don't have the soul for something like this,” said Hen Kerman, 32, from the southern city of Beersheba.

Ms Kerman, who works in a private detective office, and her partner Rani Kerman, 32, a taxi driver, had come to Netivot to pray at the tomb of a revered sage known as Baba Sali. They called themselves far right.

But like many Israelis, they seemed to have few illusions about how the war was going after Netanyahu and his right-wing government pledged eight months ago to eradicate Hamas.

“Soldiers are dying and Hamas is still there,” Kerman said.

Some, like Kerman, say they believe the Israeli army should cause more destruction in Gaza. Others argue that Israel should accept a deal, whatever the cost, to bring the hostages home and focus on an exit plan.

Tali Medina, 52, runs a dairy farm in Urim. Her husband, Haim, was shot and wounded by gunmen on October 7 while he was cycling with a friend.

“I did not start this war or hold hostages for more than 200 days,” said Ms. Medina, wearing a T-shirt with the “Brothers in Arms” logo of an anti-government protest group led by military reserve soldiers. While she opposes the aggressive Israeli government, Ms. Medina – like most Israelis – blames Hamas for the war.

“The reality is very harsh, but it's not my responsibility,” he said.

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