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Many Israelis Blame Hamas for Gaza Suffering, and Feel Little Sympathy


The southern Israeli city of Netivot, a working-class hub for mystical rabbis about 10 miles from the Gaza border, escaped the worst of the Hamas-led attack of Oct. 7, a fluke many residents ascribe to miraculous intervention by the Jewish sages buried here.

Nevertheless, many here seem to show little concern about the suffering now of the Palestinian civilians — practically neighbors — across the fence in Gaza.

Michael Zigdon, who operates a small food shack in Netivot’s rundown market and had employed two men from Gaza until the attack, expressed little sympathy for Gazans, who have endured a ferocious Israeli military onslaught for the past eight months.

“Who wants this war and who doesn’t?” Mr. Zigdon said, while mopping up red food dye that had spilled from a crushed-ice drink machine in his shack. “It wasn’t us who attacked them on Oct. 7.”

Like many Israelis, Mr. Zigdon blamed Hamas for embedding itself in residential areas, endangering Gaza’s civilians, while blurring the distinction himself between Hamas fighters and the general population, as if all were complicit.

Israelis remain gripped by the trauma of what happened on Oct. 7 — when Hamas-led gunmen surged across the border, killing about 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking about 250 more back to Gaza, according to Israeli officials. It was the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust.

The pain, still raw, is increasingly overlaid with anger. Much of the collective Israeli psyche is cloistered in self-protective layers of indignation as Israel faces international opprobrium for its prosecution of the war and the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Most Israelis seem to be aware that their military’s subsequent air and ground offensive in Gaza has killed tens of thousands of Palestinians — many of them children, according to health officials in Gaza — and wrought widespread destruction on the coastal enclave. But they have also seen the videos of scores of people in civilian clothes looting and attacking residents of the rural Israeli villages during the Hamas raids. While Palestinian polls show broad support among Gazans for the Oct. 7 attack, some Palestinians have spoken out against the atrocities committed by Hamas and its allies that day.

Netivot is a bastion of political and religious conservatism: In the November 2022 election, nearly 92 percent of the city’s vote went to parties making up the hard-line government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Armed groups from Gaza have fired barrages of rockets toward the city over the years. One struck Netivot on Oct. 7 and killed a 12-year-old boy, his father and grandfather.

But the lack of sympathy for the plight of Gazans extends beyond Israel’s traditional, right-wing strongholds. Rachel Riemer, 72, a longtime resident of Urim, a liberal, left-leaning kibbutz, or communal village, about 10 miles south of Netivot and a similar distance from the Gaza border, recalled that, during a previous round of fighting, she had donated money for blankets for Gazan children.

“This time, I don’t have place in my heart to pity them,” she said of Gaza’s civilians. “I know there is much to pity, rationally, I understand. But emotionally I can’t.”

Many Israelis — both conservative and liberal — blame Hamas for starting the war and for embedding its fighters among the Gazan population, operating, according to the military, out of schools, hospitals and mosques, and in tunnels beneath Gazans’ homes.

Many also see Gaza’s civilians as complicit, at least ideologically, in the atrocities of Oct. 7, saying that they brought Hamas to power in the first place, in Palestinian elections in 2006, and that they had not expressed much remorse — though Hamas has ruled Gaza since 2007 with little tolerance for any dissent, much less a new vote. As the war has dragged on, more Gazans have been willing to speak out against Hamas, risking retribution.

The death toll in Gaza has spiraled to at least 37,000 since Israel began its ferocious offensive, according to the Gaza health ministry, which does not distinguish between combatants and civilians.

Hamas officials deny Israel’s claims that it uses public facilities like hospitals as cover for its military operations, despite some evidence to the contrary. And there is little escape for most of the 2.3 million residents of Gaza, terrified and trapped in a crowded, narrow strip of land — tightly sealed by Israel and Egypt — and backing onto the sea, where a naval blockade is in force.

International organizations have also accused Israel of restricting the entry of aid, causing widespread hunger, though Israeli officials say they have opened up additional crossings for goods and blame humanitarian groups for failing to distribute the aid effectively. Most of Gaza’s population has been displaced and more than half the homes in the coastal enclave are reported to have been damaged or destroyed.

For much of the Israeli public, this war is very different from previous Arab-Israeli conflicts, said Avi Shilon, an Israeli historian based in Tel Aviv, explaining the apparent indifference to the suffering of Palestinians. Unlike the much shorter wars of 1967 or 1973, when state armies fought state armies, this conflict is viewed more like the 1948 war surrounding the creation of modern Israel, or through the prism of the Nazi genocide in Europe, he said.

Mr. Shilon said he saw every unintended death as a “tragedy.” But the Oct. 7 assault — when attackers killed people in their homes, at a music rave, in roadside bomb shelters and at army bases — was broadly seen in Israel as being “just about killing Jews,” Mr. Shilon said, turning the ensuing war into a visceral battle: “Either us or them.”

Rony Baruch, 67, a potato farmer from Urim, which also escaped the brunt of the Oct. 7 attack, said the humanitarian crisis in Gaza was “terrible,” and “painful,” and that it was time to end the war. But he said he did not think his opinion was representative. He also emphasized that Israel was not the “bad guy” in this confrontation.

Many Israelis have remained in a dark place. The Hebrew news media is still filled with stories of loss and courage from Oct. 7. They have watched gruesome video clips of the Oct. 7 atrocities filmed by Hamas gunmen as well as hostage videos released by the armed groups holding them.

A few survivors said they recognized Gazans they had previously employed among the infiltrators. Videos showed some crowds jeering at and abusing hostages as they were paraded through Gaza on Oct. 7. This rescue of four hostages on June 8 came after months of reports about hostages killed in captivity and about the military’s retrieving the remains of some for burial in Israel. Israelis generally paid little attention to the high death toll that the rescue mission exacted on the Gazan side. Gaza’s health officials reported more than 270 killed, including children.

The mainstream Israeli news media rarely focuses on the suffering of Gaza’s civilians and routinely leads news broadcasts with the funerals and profiles of soldiers who have died in battle. Still, according to one poll this year, 87 percent of Jewish Israelis reported having seen at least a few pictures or videos of the destruction in Gaza.

Israelis are divided, broadly along political lines, and sometimes within themselves, over issues like the supply of humanitarian aid.

“I have mixed emotions,” said Sarah Brien, 42, a resident of Urim. “On the one hand, you are obligated as a country to international conventions. On the other, you are not getting anything in return. Has any reliable organization seen any one of the hostages? Who is taking care of them?” The International Committee for the Red Cross has said it has failed to gain access to the hostages.

Israelis acknowledge the hunger in Gaza but accuse Hamas of stealing or diverting aid. Hamas officials deny stealing aid, saying that a few desperate people have looted the deliveries. Many Israelis have seen footage of hungry Gazans swarming the aid trucks. But many say they were also galled by images of Gazans flocking to the beach to find some respite, while hostages remained in the dark.

And some Israelis say that the rest of the world moved on too quickly after Oct. 7.

“The feeling is that for the world, the story began on Oct. 8,” said Tamar Hermann, a professor of political science and a public opinion expert at the Israel Democracy Institute, a nonpartisan research group in Jerusalem. “They feel that not only are the Gazans showing no remorse, but the world is undermining Israeli suffering.”

At the same time, there is little desire in Israel to see Gazan children starve to death.

“We don’t have the soul for that,” said Hen Kerman, 32, from the southern city of Beersheba.

Ms. Kerman, who works in a private investigations office, and her partner Rani Kerman, 32, a taxi driver, had come to Netivot to pray at the tomb of a revered sage known as the Baba Sali. They defined themselves as far-rightists.

But like many Israelis, they seemed to harbor few illusions about how the war was going after Mr. Netanyahu and his right-wing government pledged eight months ago to eradicate Hamas.

“Soldiers are dying and Hamas is still there,” Mr. Kerman said.

Some, like Mr. Kerman, say they believe the Israeli military should wreak more destruction on Gaza. Others say Israel should agree to a deal, whatever the cost, to bring the hostages home and focus on an exit plan.

Tali Medina, 52, manages a dairy farm at Urim. Her husband, Haim, was shot and injured by gunmen on Oct. 7 when he was out cycling with a friend.

“I didn’t start this war or keep hostages for more than 200 days,” said Ms. Medina, wearing a T-shirt with the “Brothers in Arms” logo of an antigovernment protest group led by military reserve soldiers. While she opposes the hawkish Israeli government, Ms. Medina — like most Israelis — blames Hamas for the war.

“The reality is very hard, but it’s not my responsibility,” she said.

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