This is Israel’s 9/11

Published by The i paper (9th October, 2023)

The symbolism could not be starker: young people at a rave for peace in the desert, their happiness and spirit of unity shattered by the rumble of rockets and arrival of gunmen intent on kidnap and killing. Joy turned instantly to panic, sounds of trance music replaced by screams of terror as dancers fled in fear. Two women survived by playing dead beside the bloodied corpse of their driver. A wounded man watched his friend slowly die, trapped in a bullet-ridden car for three hours. A German tourist, unconscious and semi-naked, was displayed on a truck. Scores more, including two Britons, are missing. “Dad, I love you if I don’t see you again,” one woman texted her distraught father.

This was the day that stunned Israel as Hamas attackers poured out from the Gaza strip by land, sea and air. It is a grotesque horror story of historic importance fused with epic failure of leadership. A country that prides itself on the ability of its security apparatus to protect its people was surprised by a terror group bursting out of its prison-like fiefdom. Jerusalem’s intelligence machinery, supposed to be so slick, failed to detect an operation involving thousands of missiles and hundreds of men that one expert said must have been at least a year in the making. The result was the sickening slaughter of people in their own homes and streets, kidnap of innocent civilians, attacks on kibbutzim and even infiltration of Israel’s military bases.

Many noted the significance of these events occurring almost 50 years to the day of the start of the Yom Kippur War, which began with a surprise assault by Syrian tank columns and Egyptian army brigades. The shock to the national psyche is similar, although thankfully Israel does not face an existential fight to survive this time. Yet the intelligence failures seem even worse, given the intensity of their grip on Gaza that includes “unbreachable” barriers, motion sensors, control of communications, undercover agents and informants, cameras and spy drones. As one senior Israeli diplomat said, this is really their 9/11 – and like that shocking attack on the United States, the impact will be felt far beyond Israel’s own borders.

Whatever happens over the next few days and weeks, Hamas and its allies in Iran humiliated Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. Supporters bill him as ‘Mr Security’ but after returning to power nine months ago in tandem with the far-right, he is left indelibly stained as the leader who failed to perform his most basic duty to protect citizens.

As I write, more than 32 hours after the start of this chilling attack, Israeli forces are still fighting to take back control of their own land and there seems growing anger over their sluggish response as more heartbreaking footage emerges of dead bodies in streets and terrified women being kidnapped.

Probably the nation will come together as it confronts the immense challenge of trying to free captives taken to Gaza, who reportedly include senior military officers alongside civilians such as those partygoers. Bear in mind it took five years and the handover of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners to secure the release of Gilad Shalit, a teenage soldier taken by Hamas in 2006. One jubilant Hamas official crowed that they might now free all their jailed militants. Certainly, Israel might be reluctant to send its forces back into densely-populated Gaza with the risk of heavy casualties on both sides, let alone take back control of the shattered enclave it gave up in 2005. There are, however, no easy options on the turbulent road ahead.

But was Hamas emboldened by the turmoil unleashed by a prime minister battling corruption charges who sparked bitter divisions over controversial judicial reforms in Israel while allowing extremists in government to stoke tensions in the occupied territories?

Let us hope that if any good can emerge from this nightmare it shocks Israel back into sense with a government of national unity that drops the far-right, dumps the judicial overhaul, ditches the expansion of settlements in occupied territories and reins in the settlers. Then, later, to reflect on how they reached this dark point – and reform their democracy to weaken the hold of religious and political fanatics while dropping any delusion that peace can be rooted on repression.

The failure of peace talks at the start of this century, followed by the Second Intifada, led Israel to try to contain the Palestinians, then exploit its economic and technological clout to disempower them though normalising relationships with Arab states.

These atrocities deliberately crush the concept of containment since Israel must respond. The savagery comes as Saudi Arabia shifts towards recognition of the Jewish state. Frustration and fury has grown in the West Bank, often stirred by Hamas. There is fear Hezbollah, the well-armed militia that controls southern Lebanon, might join the attack – as it did after Gilad was grabbed 17 years ago. Iran backs both groups – and is jostling for regional supremacy with Riyadh while the war in Ukraine led it closer to Moscow in opposition to a shared enemy in Washington.

Yet do not fall for the risible claim that Hamas represents the two million people trapped in Gaza, one of the poorest parts of the planet. The lack of hope and jobs makes it easier to find “martyrs” for its cause, but this is a gang that terrorises its own people as well as foes. Few dare criticise them openly in Gaza. One man told me of seeing them execute members of their rivals Fatah near his house when I last visited. Another resident, beaten and tortured by their security thugs, asked in despair how they could ever shake off the shackles of their Islamist overlords?

The only certainty from these terrible events is that the Hamas gangsters will make life even worse for Palestinians. Meanwhile the dance of death goes on in this region devoid of decent leadership as the blood of innocent Jews and Arabs stains the soil once again.

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