Content warning: This article contains graphic descriptions of violence.
Shot in the neck, in the emergency ward of an overcrowded hospital in southern Israel, a very fortunate young survivor told her family the following story: When Gazan rockets started falling in the Re’im Forest early on Saturday morning of the cursed day of October 7, 2023, the young partygoers at the music festival ran for shelter. She and ten of her girlfriends found refuge in a large garbage bin. Holding their breath, they heard machine-gun fire and jubilant voices shouting in Arabic. They heard people trying to flee, screaming and getting butchered by the dozens. For hours the young women sat trembling and silent as the massacre continued, still with no sign of the Israeli army making headway; the policemen securing the festival had been murdered too. Then one of the hiding women made an inadvertent noise. The Hamas killers were immediately upon them. She was the only survivor.
The butchers were well organized. Some of them pretended to be Israeli soldiers, telling the fleeing victims to gather in one space before gunning them down. These trained assassins were followed by “ordinary” Gazan men in jeeps and motorcycles, collecting those who remained alive into their vehicles, beating, humiliating and abducting them to the Gaza strip. Reports of mass rape and post-rape executions are still unconfirmed.
[Editor’s note: This paragraph contains especially difficult imagery]
Meanwhile, 22 towns and kibbutzim were infiltrated or conquered. We already know that whole kibbutzim, including Be’eri and Nir Oz, are effectively dead: Hundreds of their residents were murdered or abducted, and most of the homes bombed or set on fire, forcing families out of the safe rooms only to be mowed down by submachine guns. We know of three-generation families eradicated, of children killed in front of their parents and parents in front of their children, of a baby shot in the head at close range in her mother’s and siblings’ presence, of other kids and elderly women and men dragged into Gaza and horribly abused. I try not to watch the so-called snuff videos, gleefully taken and aired by Hamas, but I did see a five-year-old Israeli child being beaten by Gazan youngsters while crying for his mother.
The people justifying Hamas’s “war of liberation” and making comparisons between Israel’s bombings in Gaza and the mass murder of civilians in southern Israel are brazenly supporting these new Nazis. Many of these purported peace-lovers are Americans. This is no time to mince words: These Hamas cronies are the scum of the earth.
Never has the Israeli army gathered and butchered Palestinian civilians, elderly and disabled persons and children and babies and nursing mothers, and shot them to death. Never have civilians been deliberately massacred, with not a military target in sight. Never has the mass slaughter of innocents been met with such jubilant celebration and glee. Israel has made numerous mistakes, over-bombed crowded areas while trying to reach armed militants and headquarters, and civilian deaths were the collateral damage, possibly avoidable and possibly not. “Collateral” is an awful word, to be sure, but it means “unintended’.” Not deliberate, not jubilant, not Nazi-like.
My father, Amos Oz, is blissfully dead for the last five years. So many of us here are glad today that their parents, the founding generation of Israel, the fighters and dreamers and peace activists, are not here to see the calamity that befell us. I leaf through his harrowing account, in A Tale of Love and Darkness, of the Nazi massacre of the Rovno (Rivne) Jewish community. There, at the killing holes in the Sosenki Forest in the early 1940s, his mother’s family and friends and schoolteachers were exterminated. I find little difference between that atrocity and the Re’im Forest massacre. Both were genocidal. In both, not a single civilian was granted mercy. In southern Israel as in Eastern Europe, jubilant killers went from house to house, making sure no Jew remained alive.
As these words are being written, the northern front is heating up and Hezbollah is likely to join the fray. The consequences for civilians in northern Israel may be grave. Whether or not Benjamin Netanyahu finally agrees to a joint war cabinet with the experienced Benny Gantz, his government remains the worst batch of crooked and hapless politicians ever to lead Israel in peace or, disastrously, in war.
The reckoning will come. Hamas must cease to exist, preferably after the enactment of a prisoners’ exchange. At the same time, Israel is still by no means exempt from wartime moral duties, including viable concern for civilian lives. We are not like Hamas. We never have been and we never will be.
A different sort of reckoning will be made with Crime [sic] Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his extremist government, who have led us into this valley of death. In so many ways have Israel’s citizens been betrayed: Some of our ministers, with Netanyahu’s full espousal, have been provoking the Palestinians for months. Others are currently sitting uselessly in their offices while the country is screaming for security, organizational and logistical support. As hastily conscripted reserve units report lack of military equipment, bullet-proof vests and even food, the government is still, to this day, shifting millions of taxpayer shekels to the ultra-Orthodox communities in previously agreed-upon election bribes. Even the emergency database of missing persons has been set up and running, for the last three days, not by officials but by civil society volunteers.
The time will come, too, for the tales of heroism: soldiers, retired officers and ordinary civilians who ran into hell’s fire to pull survivors out. A woman named Inbal Liberman, a community security coordinator, who saved a whole kibbutz (Nir Am, where my relatives live) by her speed and wit in organizing civil defense on its fences. Grandmother Rachel, who calmly kept five terrorists from killing her and her husband by giving them coffee and cookies and chatting to them in her apartment in Ofakim, until a police force was able to break in.
Civil society’s greatest good fortune, during these days of governmental near-nonexistence, is the former protest movement. The pro-democracy network, which was already in place since the beginning of the now-obsolete judicial overhaul, has turned overnight into a highly effective civil rescue force. Groups such as “Brothers in Arms” and the Women’s Protest are currently organizing transportation and housing for thousands of displaced families, providing food and equipment for reserve military units and sending physical and psychological support to myriads of victims. Thank goodness for the existence of Israel’s pro-democracy movement and for its newly established civic superstructure, energies and resilience.
There will be reckoning. There will be rebuilding. There will be stocktaking. We shall learn from our horrible mistakes and oust our hideous leadership. It will take a large amount of time, tenacity and tears.
My father is not alive to see the Rovno-like atrocity that hit a whole region of Israel only a few miles from his home in Arad. But his words echo with me. “Whoever does not discern between degrees of evil,” he wrote, “is doomed to become a servant of evil.”
As Israel reels and returns fire, more deaths will follow, unfortunately also of innocents on both sides. But we vow that, while fighting for our lives, we shall not lose our humanity. Please look straight into the eyes of Hamas’s atrocious backers, and then spit in their faces. Actively resisting evil is one vital way of promoting the good.
Fania Oz-Salzberger is an Israeli essayist, professor of history emerita at the University of Haifa and a regular contributor to Moment.