‘It’s everywhere’ – how Hamas attack haunts Israel’s student soldiers

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Erez crossingImage source, Reuters

The first time I crossed into Gaza through the Erez checkpoint in 1991 it was not much more than a few bored Israeli soldiers in a shed, checking IDs, before they let visitors drive their cars through an opening in the barbed wire and into Gaza.

In the years since then, it evolved into a gleaming terminal, with complex layers of concrete walls, defences and steel gates, all covered with dozens of CCTV cameras. Only the very trusted and privileged were allowed to drive through Erez. Journalists had to walk and drag their bags with them.

Until 7 October, when Hamas fighters smashed through Erez. They attacked the nearby military base, killing Israeli soldiers and taking others hostage. Since then, it has been closed to all but the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

As part of Israel’s attempt to placate President Joe Biden after seven workers from the World Central Kitchen charity were killed by the IDF, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised to reopen Erez to humanitarian convoys.

That matters because it is the simplest way to get aid to perhaps 300,000 Palestinians in northern Gaza. The most authoritative measure of food emergencies, known as the IPC, has warned that famine will have gripped the area in the next four weeks or so. Joe Biden’s humanitarian envoy to Gaza, David Satterfield, said on Wednesday that there was “an imminent risk of famine for the majority, if not all, the 2.2 million population of Gaza”.

The famine has been caused by the siege Israel imposed just after the 7 October attacks. At the time the Israeli defence minister Yoav Gallant said: “I have ordered a complete siege on the Gaza Strip. There will be no electricity, no food, no fuel, everything is closed.

“We are fighting human animals, and we are acting accordingly.”

Israel was forced by international pressure to allow in limited supplies of aid. But over six months it has not been anything like enough. Israel argued, inaccurately, that hunger in Gaza was caused by Hamas stealing and stockpiling aid and the UN’s failure to distribute what was left.

Close supporters of Prime Minister Netanyahu continue to deny there is a famine. One of them, an MP called Boaz Bismuth, told me at Israel’s parliament that there was no famine in Gaza and allegations that Israel was starving civilians were based on antisemitism. The evidence of famine, however, is overwhelming.

The Erez crossing, despite the prime minister’s promise to Joe Biden, is still closed. I managed to get close enough to look down on the Erez terminal. Nothing was moving. I couldn’t see people, let alone trucks. Reports in Israel say the government is talking about opening another crossing, less easily accessible to Israeli demonstrators who do not want any food or medical aid to enter Gaza while the hostages are still there and have been blocking some convoys.

The UN and other aid providers say every day counts to try to help people caught up in the humanitarian catastrophe inside Gaza. The fact that Erez is closed looks like a delaying tactic. The Jewish ultranationalists whose backing keeps Mr Netanyahu in power also do not want to send in aid.

The denial of famine fits seamlessly into the century of conflict between Arabs and Jews for possession of the land between the river Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea.

The conflict is sustained not just by years of Israeli occupation of land in Gaza and the West Bank including East Jerusalem that Palestinians want as a state, and the opposition of armed groups, notably Hamas, to Israel’s existence. They also have opposing, wildly different national stories about their right to be there. The bitterness and bloodshed of the last six months have deepened the dehumanising differences between the two sides.

I have spoken to many Palestinians and Israeli civilians in the last six months about their views of the war. It is hard to speak to Israeli soldiers, at least when they are in uniform. IDF spokespeople try hard to control the messages that reach journalists. But since much of Israel’s fighting strength depends on mobilising reservists, it is much easier to talk to them when they are back in civilian life.

In an unscientific attempt to get a feel for the beliefs and perceptions of Israeli soldiers after six months of war I went to Ben Gurion University of the Negev, in the town of Beersheba in southern Israel. It is only about 25 miles from Gaza.

Stickers on the campus at Ben Gurion remember students killed on 7 October and in Gaza

The rector of the university, Chaim Hames, told me that more than 100 members of their community – students, staff, faculty and their families – had been killed or taken hostage on 7 October. 6,500 students from a student body of 20,000 were mobilised. The war, Mr Hames said, was always close.

“The hospital is just across the road, the helicopters constantly ferrying the wounded from Gaza. Students are sitting in the classrooms. They hear the helicopters coming in and out, and many of them have friends who are still on active duty. It impacts everything.”

I spoke to three young men who had spent months fighting in Gaza. They didn’t want to use their full names. One of them, Ben, a 28-year-old postgraduate who serves in an engineering unit blowing up tunnels, had left only a few days before. He said the whole time he was in there it felt personal.

“I remember 7 October. I remember all my friends and the kibbutzim from the Gaza Strip. All my friends from the music festival… some are still hostages. The whole point was to make sure that it can never happen again and to replace Hamas as the ruling government. To make sure that our people are safe again.”

“It’s extremely personal. From day one. I didn’t wake up on a Saturday morning and hear about this from the news. I woke up and learned about it from group chats. From my phone, from people begging for help.”

Three Israeli students speak to Jeremy Bowen

Oded, another 28-year-old who serves in a combat unit, agreed.

“I think everybody here is related somehow to what happened. Everybody. Everybody knows someone that was kidnapped. That was killed… It’s not like a regular situation when it happens to a certain area. It’s heavy. It’s everywhere.”

Ilan, a 25-year-old who serves in the reconnaissance unit of the paratroop brigade, detected sympathy and support for Hamas among civilians with whom he had come into contact.

“Of course, there are civilians that have nothing to do with it, but many of them are not that innocent… Many had photos of them holding an AK 47, photos of their children holding weapons. All the books, and pictures of Israel in flames.”

“I think many of them aren’t innocent and they think it will be really hard to find those that are innocent. But it doesn’t mean I think everyone should get hurt”.

All three student soldiers agreed the war was necessary.

“We all wish for peace,” said Oded. “For quiet. Of course, I prefer to be here in the university to study, to go and drink my coffee instead of fighting a war like. It’s not fun going to fight in a war, but sometimes it’s necessary. And in this situation, it’s necessary.”

According to a poll conducted by Tel Aviv University’s Peace Index three weeks after the 7 October attacks, most Israelis said they were now against the idea, revived by Joe Biden and other Western leaders, that the only way of ending this long conflict is to establish a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Ben said his thinking had changed because of the war.

“I think that if you would have asked me this question on 6 October, then I would say definitely yes, I would just do a Palestinian state. Let them live over there, and we’ll live over here, and we’ll all coexist, and everything will be nice. But after 7 October, it seems clear to me that that they don’t want it as much as I wanted it.”

Ilan agreed with him. “The idea of a state will never work until they show any acknowledgement of us having also a state of our own. I think the real cause of many of them, unfortunately, not to have two states to have one state, their own state, and us out of here. So of course, I want a good life for them also. But it starts from the education, the route. It will take a long time.”

Man walks past ruins of Gaza City's Islamic University in February 2024

Image source, Getty Images

The Palestinian view of the war is entirely different. The idea that Israel is committing genocide alongside a whole range of other crimes of war in Gaza is universally accepted among them. As for education, schools and universities have been smashed by Israel in Gaza, as part of a scorched earth policy that has done vast damage.

More than 2,000 academics affiliated with universities in North America have written an open letter condemning what they call “scholasticide” in Gaza. All 12 universities in Gaza have been destroyed and damaged.

The letter condemns Israel for, among other actions, destroying the Islamic University by air strikes on 11 October and blowing up al-Isra University on 17 January, after using it as a barracks and detention centre. As well as the destruction of higher education, no children are going to primary or secondary schools.

Ceasefire talks are going on in Cairo, mediated by the US, Egypt and Qatar. Prospects for success are poor. Both Israel and Hamas have entrenched positions and no inclination to budge. That is bad news for everyone, especially Palestinian civilians in Gaza and the surviving Israeli hostages.

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