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Opinion: In times of crisis, Israelis rally around their leaders. This time is different


Opinion by Janine Zacharia

(CNN) — Editor’s note: Janine Zacharia is a lecturer in Stanford University’s Department of Communication and former Washington Post Jerusalem bureau chief. She has previously reported for Bloomberg News, Reuters, The Jerusalem Post and The Jerusalem Report about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion at CNN.

I started hearing from friends in Israel on Saturday that the number of partygoers murdered at an all-night rave near the Gaza border was much higher than authorities were disclosing.

Soon after, distraught relatives began appearing outside hospitals, recounting on live TV their final conversations with their missing loved ones. “Nissim, I am dying,” one grief-stricken man recalled his brother saying before he lost contact with him. Many said they then heard conversations in Arabic before lines went dead.

At 10:02 p.m. Sunday in Israel, a headline flashed on the Haaretz news site: Rescue workers had found an inconceivable 260 bodies at the party site. As of 11 p.m. Sunday, the official total number of Israeli casualties from a little over one day of widespread massacres had surpassed 700. Israel’s Army Radio reported at least 900 dead on Monday.

This doesn’t include more than 100 civilians (including children and elderly) and soldiers taken hostage alive — or dead — into Gaza as documented in video clips posted on Hamas’ Telegram channel, or the bodies of those still on the streets of Israel.

“This is a different scale than we are used to,” Israeli anchor Udi Segal remarked on local Channel 13 as the shockingly enormous scope of the tragedy became apparent.

Alon Ben-David, the veteran Israeli defense correspondent for Channel 13, at one point became the fulcrum of the nation’s fury as anchors pummeled him with questions about how the vaunted Israel Defense Forces and the country’s thought-to-be unparalleled intelligence community could fail so completely. “We are giving the impression that everything is under control. Everything is not under control,” reporter Gil Tamary erupted.

There haven’t been hundreds of Israeli civilians killed in a single day for as long as anyone can remember, if ever. In the entire nearly five years of the second Palestinian intifada from 2000 to 2005, roughly 1,000 Israelis were killed. The country has never had grandparents and young children abducted like this so there was no mechanism in place for communicating with families as there is for kidnapped soldiers.

This attack is being compared to the 1973 Yom Kippur War when Arab armies surprised Israel almost 50 years ago to the day. But this is more traumatic. Not only because of the sheer number of murdered young civilians — in addition to young soldiers. But because of the way the horror is unfolding live on television, radio and social media and the way Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government — that millions of Israelis have been protesting for months over right-wing attempts to weaken the judiciary — seems completely absent and incompetent.

Over two decades of reporting on Israel, I covered tragedies that plunged the nation into periods of collective grief — the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the collision of two Israeli air force helicopters in 1997 that killed all 73 soldiers, rounds of fighting between Hamas and Israel, the second intifada, the Second Lebanon War, countless Palestinian suicide bombings in the 1990s.

Each time airwaves filled with escalating casualty counts and painful images of the dead. But the idea that “Israel chazak” — Israel is strong — remained consistent. The country always rallied around the IDF and its leadership at moments of crisis. This isn’t happening in the same way as it has before, at least so far.

Israelis, who pride themselves on never being “freiers” (or fools), are feeling powerless and shattered. They are demanding answers and shouting their frustrations at the IDF leadership and Netanyahu even before all the bodies have been retrieved.

“There is no government. There is no Bibi,” a mother outside a hospital screamed into a microphone she grabbed from a Channel 13 television reporter (or Channel 12. I can’t remember, as I feverishly flicked back and forth between the two Hebrew-language channels for the latest updates), explaining she had been searching for her daughter for 27 hours. “We are like Ukraine.”

“I don’t remember a situation like this,” an exasperated Channel 12 news reporter said dressed in protective gear outside Sderot, one of the hardest-hit cities. “Forty-eight hours into an incident, this kind of chaos, families still calling journalists to help them.”

Military officials appearing on Israeli newscasts remarked how Hamas’ coordinated invasion resembled the methodical work of an army. But the murderous rampages recall old-fashioned terror tactics: The 1974 massacre in the northern Israeli town of Kiryat Shemona when 18 Israelis were killed by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The Passover massacre at a Netanya hotel in 2002 that killed 30 while people sat down for a seder. All the suicide bombings I lived through in Jerusalem in the 1990s — repeated Bus 18 explosionsCafe Moment.

As social media sites fill with images of missing, young Israelis, a horrific virtual montage akin to the plastered photos around ground zero in Manhattan on 9/11, broadcasters are alternating between reports from towns where security forces still hunt for Hamas gunmen and panels of former military commanders arguing about next steps.

Frustrated anchors express disbelief at what they’ve described as the IDF’s relatively “timid,” initial response. (Israeli airstrikes have killed almost 500 Palestinians so far in Gaza.) Military experts plead for patience while the IDF finishes the initial phase of securing towns along the Gaza border, resupplies weapons and gets hundreds of thousands of reservists and enlisted prepared for a possible ground invasion.

Avi Dichter, the former head of the Israeli Shin Bet security service, and current member of the governing coalition, said — purposely vaguely, I expect — that the Cabinet had authorized destroying all Hamas’ and Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s “military infrastructure.”

But what is military infrastructure when Hamas took women and children hostages back to Gaza on motorcycles and golf carts?

Some such as former senior IDF commander Amir Avivi said Israel must dismantle Hamas and reoccupy the Gaza Strip, which Israel evacuated in August 2005, and have “complete freedom of movement,” not just wage a customary air offensive, lest Israel see a repeat of what just happened in another two years. When he said this, I thought of the 2014 conflict when Israel sent troops into the Gaza Strip Hamas stronghold of Shejaiya and 13 IDF soldiers were ambushed and killed in one night, rattling the country.

The casualty counts of reoccupation — on both sides — would be astronomical, and I don’t know how or if Israel can achieve this goal. The country appears willing to pay the price at least at this moment. The main debate being not whether to send in ground troops, but whether negotiations to secure the release of hostages must come first.

The Israeli public won’t get the immediate results it craves. There will be no repeat of the 1976 famed rescue of hijacked Israeli passengers at Entebbe in Uganda. By now, the Israeli hostages are surely dispersed. Heartbreaking videos of their appeals for rescue will undoubtedly supplant the nauseating videos of their capture soon, further traumatizing a fully devastated nation.

I’ve been thinking these past 36 hours about a conversation I had with a Hamas official while I was a journalist for The Washington Post reporting in Gaza on Israel’s blockade of the territory in 2010. “What do they think of us in America?” the official, dressed in a suit and tie, asked me at one point during the interview. I replied something to the effect that most Americans probably don’t know what Hamas is and if they have heard of you, they probably think of suicide bombers blowing up Israelis in a Sbarro pizzeria in Jerusalem. He was taken aback and argued that image of Hamas was out of date.

Another moment I keep coming back to is a 2015 whimsical Netanyahu campaign video in which he appears at the door of a couple about to head out for the evening. “You asked for a babysitter. You got the Bibi-sitter,” Netanyahu says, explaining how only he could be trusted with their kids.

No longer. Netanyahu is a failed prime minister. He has partnered with radicals who have divided the Israeli nation, antagonized the Palestinians and shelved any chances of peace.

He has presided over years of a failed policy toward the Gaza Strip and the Palestinian people more broadly. He will be held responsible for the most traumatic episode in Israel’s history.

“This is unforgivable,” Eitan Ben Eliyahu, the former Israeli air force commander, said Sunday evening of Israel’s leadership. “We must remember that.”

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