I returned last week from a three-day trip to Israel with the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. Foreign affairs are not the purview of state legislators, but this was an opportunity to bear witness to the horrors of the Oct. 7 Hamas terror attack and try to make sense of the subsequent invasion of Gaza that killed thousands, half of them children.
Much of what we saw defies rational explanation. At the kibbutz Kfar Aza near the Gaza border, the Israeli government led residents to believe they were safe. Hamas was free to conduct its own affairs in Gaza with little intrusion and thousands of Palestinians had been granted work permits in Israel.
Friendships fostered across the border. A woman from a town near Gaza, Netiv Ha’Asara, described how she and her husband had regularly escorted a young Palestinian boy for cancer treatment in Tel Aviv (unable to access therapy, he has since died).
In the months preceding the attack, the members of the kibbutz grew suspicious of increasing military activities across the border. Hamas openly engaged in drills, which the Israelis could observe just hundreds of feet from their homes. Gunfire and explosions became more and more common, but their concerns were dismissed by local police. But what was Hamas practicing for, if not an attack?
We were told these Israelis were used to the incoming rockets from Gaza because they usually had time to find shelter in their safe rooms. Plus, the sophisticated anti-missile system, Iron Dome, protected them from the threats from the sky with an astounding 90% success rate. The great tragedy is that nobody anticipated a ground invasion.
Soldiers at a nearby base were still asleep when Hamas struck. Security gates were easily breached, exposing entire communities to the terrorists, which reportedly had been provided with maps to help guide their murderous intentions. Safe rooms, for the most part, didn’t have locks or secure windows, allowing the terrorists to indiscriminately murder their Jewish victims with little resistance.
Whatever perceptions of peaceful coexistence existed were shattered on the dawn of Oct. 7. Its aftermath is difficult to accurately describe here. From a distance, the collapsed roofs and smashed windows looked like a tornado had hit the village. Up close, we saw far more intimate and horrifying evidence: Bloody handprints on walls, scorched rooms, bullet holes and spent casings, personal effects strewn about. The acrid smell of smoke and death itself permeated the compound. This is what a pogrom looks like.
Elsewhere, there was some reason for hope. In Tel Aviv, we met with Brothers and Sisters for Israel, a group led by technology entrepreneurs formed a year ago to lead a mass movement against the right-wing takeover of the Israeli judiciary. Since Oct. 7, Brothers and Sisters has pivoted from a progressive protest group to providing humanitarian aid across the country (their charitable status is being questioned by some on the right).
The 130,000 residents near Gaza, who’ve been relocated to hotels scattered across the country — reminiscent of the plight of migrants here at home — are intent on returning and rebuilding. “I can’t let my home become a memorial,” one of them said. A courageous Palestinian journalist said most Palestinians want to break Hamas’ stranglehold, but they fear retribution and think Israel’s merciless bombing campaign only strengthens the terrorists’ grip.
The Israelis we met near Gaza were sharply critical of the government and its formerly vaunted military. “A paper tiger,” as one woman put it to me. “We only live a mile from an army base,” another said, “But we had to wait for hours for help while our community was being slaughtered alive.”
They’re furious that the Netanyahu government had forsaken their security concerns in favor of right-wing settlers in the West Bank. Many have been marching in the thousands (including members of my own family) in support of the deal to end the bombing in exchange for release of the hostages. Yesterday, the release of the captives began, thanks largely to the efforts of the Biden administration.
Nearly everyone we met in Israel worries about what comes next. Will this cessation of bombing and return of the first group hostages allow the terrorists to regroup and attack again, as Hamas has pledged? A two-state solution must be pursued, but will Hamas be replaced by another terror government intent on Israel’s destruction? The Netanyahu government must go, but how soon can that happen during wartime?
These questions are well beyond my legislative role as a state senator, but I’m obligated to demand answers that will help lead towards peace.
Hoylman-Sigal represents the West Side of Manhattan in the state Senate.