Everything I thought I knew about Israel and Gaza was wrong

This story was originally published in the Forward on Oct. 9. Click here to get the Forward’s free email newsletters delivered to your inbox.

Everything I thought I knew about Israel and Gaza turns out not to be true. And everything I feared about Hamas has come to fruition.

That’s what I’m reckoning with as I continue to absorb this unimaginable fact: More Jews were murdered on Saturday than on any single day since the Holocaust — inside the Jewish homeland, in the nation-state that is supposed to be our safe haven, on the watch of the strongest military in the Middle East, by terrorists whose tactics can only be described as barbaric.

It is almost too much to bear. But looking away is not an option. Not for anyone who cares about the future of Israel and the Jewish people — nor for all who care about peace, democracy, civility, humanity.

I am supposed to be an expert on Israel and Gaza. During my four years as Jerusalem bureau chief of The New York Times, I made perhaps a dozen reporting trips into the Gaza Strip, covering not one but two conflagrations between Israel and Hamas.

I was on the ground for the entire eight-day Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, and led coverage of the 51-day Operation Protective Edge in 2014. I have visited Sderot and Kibbutz Nahal Oz and Ofakim and many of the other southern Israeli communities that were turned into battlefields this weekend. I have stood inside a tunnel that Hamas dug underneath the border to infiltrate Israel — after it had been seized and blocked by the Israeli military.

I have attended funerals of Gaza civilians killed by Israeli airstrikes and of Jewish teenagers murdered by Hamas terrorists. I have walked through the rubble, I have sat in the bomb shelters, I have wiped the tears.

If you had asked me on Friday if it was possible to imagine Gaza militants driving a bulldozer through the Erez crossing and over the border fence, I would have said: No way. This is a checkpoint I used every time I entered Gaza, and you cannot take a step across its parking lot without Israeli guards recording it. That fence is equipped with the highest-tech sensors; anyone touching it risks being shot dead.

Or so I thought.

If you’d asked last week about terrorists on motorbikes infiltrating the border communities and kidnapping grandparents and toddlers, I would have shaken my head. There are Israeli military posts throughout the Gaza Envelope, and these communities have vigilant armed civilian patrols and sophisticated alert systems. 

I was wrong. Dead wrong. At least 900 Israelis dead wrong, by the latest count.

The failure of Israeli — and U.S. — intelligence to detect plans for this unprecedented, coordinated assault, and Israel’s inadequate response in the first 36 hours afterward, will rightly be the subject of investigatory commissions and commentary for months to come. The most plausible explanation I have heard so far is that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government took its eye off the ball, moving thousands of troops from the Gaza Command to protect Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank, and focusing far too much energy on suppressing pro-democracy protests rather than thwarting actual threats.

I was also wrong about the unity and cohesiveness that any attack generates among Israelis from all political, geographic, religious and ethnic backgrounds. The open way in which journalists, military analysts and individual families are calling out the government’s gaping missteps even while the battles are raging is something new, something I did not see in 2014 and 2012, something that perhaps reflects the deep wounds this government and its judicial overhaul have inflicted on the body politic.

None of which changes the fact that Israel, for all its flaws, was just subjected to one of the worst terror attacks in history. Competitive tragedies are never a good idea, but stop for a second to ponder this: Given Israel’s tiny 9 million population, the death toll is akin to the U.S. losing 11 times the number it did on 9/11.

Virtually everyone in the tiny country knows someone who was at the all-night dance party in the desert that became a death trap. If you had asked Israelis on Friday if it was safe to go, they all would have said what I would have said: Sure. The army is right there, the fence is secure. It’s a holiday. Have fun.

We were all wrong. Dead wrong. About everything except the brutality of Hamas. 

The horrific acts of terror these militants filmed themselves carrying out are every bit as bad as their fiercest critics ever described. Our empathy for individual Palestinians in Gaza, our support for Palestinian national sovereignty, must never obscure the cold truth of Hamas militants: They are hateful, antisemitic terrorists who want to wipe Israel from the map. 

They are also not going away.

At a panel discussion I moderated Sunday night in Manhattan, Lihi Ben Shitrit, director of the Israel studies program at NYU, reminded us of a scary truth: You don’t pick your enemies. 

Israel and her allies have to find a way to crush Hamas — and to make peace with the Palestinians. Otherwise, our era will become the third in history in which Jewish control of Jerusalem did not last more than 80 years. The Palestinian conflict is our problem to solve, because Israel is our Jewish homeland to protect.

I was wrong about Israel’s vulnerability to this kind of devastating attack and wrong about the Israeli military’s asymmetrical advantages. But this weekend’s events make very clear I was not wrong about one important thing: The status quo is clearly not sustainable. 

The coming days and weeks will be awful. Israel has no good options. Netanyahu must remain focused on bringing the hostages home. Opposition politicians should insist on that as a condition of entering the government, along with a promise of new elections once the war is over. The judicial overhaul plan must clearly be dropped, immediately. 

And we, American Jews, human beings who abhor terror, must stand with Israel today. Stand with the citizens racing home from holidays abroad to do their reserve duty, with the partners and parents and siblings of the desert revelers kidnapped and killed, with the families evacuated indefinitely from the southern border communities.

Stand with everyone who, like me, is realizing that everything they thought they knew about Israel and Gaza was wrong. 

This article was originally published on the Forward.