columnIsrael at War

What Americans don’t get about Israelis fighting for their lives

They fail to understand a traumatized nation facing genocidal foes—one that is united behind a war whose aim is the preservation of their very existence.

A view of the destruction perpetrated by Hamas terrorists on Oct. 7 in Kibbutz Kfar Aza, near the southern Israeli border with Gaza, Oct. 15, 2023. Photo by Chaim Goldberg/Flash90.
A view of the destruction perpetrated by Hamas terrorists on Oct. 7 in Kibbutz Kfar Aza, near the southern Israeli border with Gaza, Oct. 15, 2023. Photo by Chaim Goldberg/Flash90.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

The world looks a lot different from Kibbutz Kfar Aza than it does in the United States or any other point on the planet. The difference is obvious in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem or anywhere else in Israel. Throughout the world in most mainstream media accounts and commentary from supposedly enlightened members of the chattering classes, the current war being fought in Gaza between Israel and Hamas is seen as merely the latest twist in a long cycle of violence between Israelis and Palestinians. From that perspective, it’s just more evidence of the cruelty of war to which the only possible moral response is to tell everyone involved to stop it, especially when the alleged underdogs—the Palestinians—are being defeated.

To those who look on from afar, the history of the conflict or the rights and wrongs of how the war started—even the unspeakable atrocities committed on Oct. 7 at Kfar Aza and 21 other Israeli communities when Palestinians associated with Hamas violated a ceasefire, crossed the border and murdered, raped, tortured and kidnapped people—are just details that act to incite the combatants.

But those details matter, especially if they involve the right to live in safety and relative peace.

A just war

This war is between a democratic nation fighting for its existence against an Islamist movement whose goal is the destruction of Israel and the Jewish people. Yet many outside of Israel, even those who do know the history and essential nature of the two sides in this struggle, such as President Joe Biden and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, are increasingly speaking as if the only thing to do is to end the war as soon as possible. They say the aftermath of the war must mean that Hamas survives—and gets away with mass murder. That means the Palestinians are rewarded for such abominations with an independent state that will likely have the ability to pursue the terrorist organization’s goal for many more days like Oct. 7. Somehow, that makes sense in Washington and other places.

But not in Israel.

The overwhelming majority of Israelis, including many, if not most, of those who oppose Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, see it very differently. And to understand why, maybe you need to go to Kfar Aza and see the ruins and makeshift memorials to the people who lived in that small kibbutz near the Gaza border who were brutally murdered, raped or kidnapped by Palestinians.

If so, you’ll soon realize that the battle with Hamas isn’t one about Israelis ruthlessly harming Palestinians. Nor is it about “white” oppressors seeking to dominate powerless “people of color,” as many left-wing Americans think. Nor is it one in which tired diplomatic theories about a “two-state solution,” which have repeatedly been rejected by the Palestinian people, can be employed to get a messy situation under control, not to mention ease some of Biden’s political problems.

To be in Israel during this war is to experience both the strength and the fragility of the Jewish state. Yet the general public wouldn’t necessarily think that if all they know of the Middle East is what’s seen on news shows. After all, life goes on pretty much as normal, even if some businesses and farming areas in southern and northern Israel have clearly suffered due to the absence of employees because so many people have been called into active military service. The buses and trains are running, and people still go to the movies and concerts, as well as other normal activities.

The hotels are also full, but not with tourists. That is a key giveaway that something isn’t right. Walk into many hotels in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, and something is a little off. They’re packed with people but not tourists on vacation from abroad. Chat with even a few of the hundreds of thousands of Israelis—families with small children and elderly people prominent among them—who were forced to flee their homes in the south near Gaza and the north near Lebanon, and you get a view of the war that is omitted in the breathless coverage of Palestinian suffering.

These people were chased out of their homes by either the Oct. 7 attacks and continued rocket fire by Hamas, or the ongoing missile fire from Hezbollah. They can’t go home until the terrorist threat at both borders is eliminated.

Aviad Edri Murdered in Kibbutz Kfar Aza
A poster in memory of Aviad Edri, who was murdered on Oct. 7 in Kibbutz Kfar Aza by Hamas terrorists. Photo by Jonathan S. Tobin.

A country united by grief and determination

To understand what’s going on, you need to talk to Israelis who have been called back into the military and willingly risking their lives fighting in Gaza. Though they’re eager to resume their regular lives, many I spoke with are just as ready to return to the battlefield because they know the job of destroying a deadly threat to their country isn’t finished. While international opinion deplores the possibility that Israel will attack the city of Rafah—Hamas’s last major enclave inside Gaza—few Israelis I spoke to, including those who have served, are prepared to halt the war until all of the perpetrators of the Oct. 7 massacres are stripped of the ability to repeat their crimes.

You don’t have to do a lot of reporting before you realize that morale among Israeli soldiers is high and stretches across all the cultural, political and religious debates that divide Israeli society. It’s not because they relish war or bloodshed. They don’t want to kill Palestinians and also grieve the loss of so many of their comrades—casualties made more likely because of the strict rules of engagement that prevent the Israel Defense Forces from fully utilizing the firepower at their disposal to lower the number of civilians killed because Hamas uses them as human shields.

Their spirit remains strong. They know that what they are doing has nothing to do with the lies about “apartheid,” “settler-colonialism,” “occupation” or “genocide” that are thrown about at antisemitic demonstrations in U.S. cities or on college campuses and are treated as acceptable discourse in mainstream publications like The New York Times.

Israeli soldiers—young conscripts and veteran reservists alike—aren’t down about the war because they know that what they are doing is defending their homes and families. It’s the civic faith in the justice of their cause that resonates throughout Israeli society and pervades the thinking of those who have sent their loved ones to battle. It is also felt by the grieving families of those who didn’t come home. Israel is a nation that is united by both anguish and determination.

Americans understand war differently

This may come as a shock to Americans, who are used to thinking of wars in a very different way.

Since World War II, Americans were sent to fight dismal and bloody proxy wars in Korea and Vietnam, where the rhetoric about defending democracy against communism rang hollow for many. That was just as true about the attitudes toward the wars fought in Afghanistan and Iraq in this century. Despite any initial enthusiasm about punishing the perpetrators of 9/11 or toppling dictator Saddam Hussein, those conflicts turned into messy quagmires that most Americans—whether on the right or the left—wished to escape. Though the opponents of the United States were clearly evil, by the time both wars ended in what history will record as defeats, they hardly seemed worth the sacrifice of blood and treasure that had been expended on them. Even before the final rout of Americans during the Biden administration’s disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, these wars had already been sealed in the country’s collective memory by both popular culture and the opinion of most serious commentators as terrible mistakes.

Coverage of Israel’s war against Hamas makes it seem as if it is another version of hapless and brutal Westerners fighting Muslims in futile efforts that cannot succeed, similar to the way Americans failed in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the overwhelming majority of Israelis—from secular left-wing Tel Avivians to pious Jerusalemites and all points in between—know their war is different.

They understand that their opponents are not in far-off lands like America’s in recent decades, and their raw violence directly threatens them. Though Israel has prospered in the 75 years since the Jews regained sovereignty in their ancient homeland, it hasn’t known a day of complete peace. Palestinian Arabs, their foreign allies and enablers in the Muslim and Arab world, as well as those in the West and international community, have never given up their quest to destroy the one Jewish state on the planet.

The horrors of Oct. 7 were not a one-off act of despicable and pointless anti-Western terrorism like the Sept. 11 attacks. Israel has suffered many terrorist attacks in which large numbers of civilians were killed by Islamist murderers, but Oct. 7 was the worst of them all. Despite the barbarism shown by the Palestinians involved, what made it resonate throughout Israeli society was the certain knowledge that it was intended as a trailer for what Hamas—and the majority of the Palestinian population that supported and still supports those actions—intends to do to the rest of Israel.

Wrecked Cars From Nova Music Festival
Wrecked cars from attendees of the Nova music festival on Oct. 7 are piled up as a gruesome reminder of the Hamas terrorist attacks in southern Israel. Photo by Jonathan S. Tobin.

Places of pilgrimage

That’s why the view from Kfar Aza, and other Israeli kibbutzim and towns throughout southern Israel, is so different.

The sites of the massacres have become places of pilgrimage for Israelis and visitors to the country—and rightly so. To see the homes in places like Kfar Aza that were riddled with bullets and/or burned by the terrorists, and to learn of the horrible fates of their inhabitants, is a searing experience. The same is true for the fields where the Nova music festival took place, and where hundreds of young people were slaughtered, raped and kidnapped—and which are now filled with makeshift memorials to the victims and those taken hostage. Just as haunting are the nearby fields where the wreckage of hundreds of burned-out cars of festival attendees have been piled up and for the time being, left as a gruesome reminder of their fate.

After a brief period of interest and empathy, most of the international media lost interest in the story of Oct. 7. Americans don’t hear from those who survived the attacks or those who risked their lives to rescue some of the victims. But their stories do resonate with fellow Israelis, who understand that they could have just as easily found themselves the prey of Hamas murderers hunting for Jews to torment and kill on that terrible day.

The fate of the hostages also hangs over the country. The pain of the families of those who are still held in captivity by Hamas is felt by everyone there. And while politics has intruded into the discussion—as the anti-judicial reform movement that paralyzed the country has taken control of the weekly “hostage square” protests in Tel Aviv and focused their animus at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rather than Hamas—support for the war effort remains largely unshaken.

The notion of stopping the fighting to allow Hamas to survive while still armed and in control of part of Gaza is widely considered reasonable elsewhere, but not in Israel. There, they understand that if Hamas is allowed to fully escape the consequences of the war it started, it will only mean that it will be allowed to make good on its promise to repeat the Oct. 7 atrocities again and again.

The widespread assumption in America—even among major Jewish organizations that are supposed to have Israel and the Jewish people’s best interests at heart—that a Palestinian state must be created after the war ends is opposed even by most on the Israeli left. They know that rewarding Hamas and its supporters with such a gesture isn’t just an invitation to more bloodshed. It’s also immoral and will ensure that the conflict never ends. The independent Palestinian state in all but name ruled by Hamas in Gaza before Oct. 7 was evidence of what such a “solution” would mean for Israel. They understand that a state in Gaza, as well as one in Judea and Samaria, controlled by genocidal terrorists and their morally equivalent political rivals—the Palestinian Authority and the Fatah Party—could place the entire country in danger.

But that’s hard to see in Washington, even by those not motivated by leftist ideologies to hate Israel and to cheer the slaughter of Jews. Still, it’s a truth that is difficult to escape when looking at the ruins of Kfar Aza.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him: @jonathas_tobin.

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