Nineteen-year-old Roni Ashel’s last text message to her mother was on October 7 at 9.27 am: “Mom, I’m okay, don’t worry about me. Love you.” The 19-year-old soldier was on duty at the Israel-Gaza border that day when she was abducted by Hamas militants, one of about 200 Israelis who were taken hostage and are now believed to be in Gaza.
In Tel Aviv, Roni’s aunt Tair remembers her niece, who “loves Taylor Swift and Maroon 5”, as she says, “So far, no one knows anything about her. We are desperate to receive any sign of life.”
So the aunt sent Roni a text message: “Well, honey, we will find you. We will get you back. Your parents love you. Your family loves you. Stay strong. We know you have high resilience. Use it now. Till we come and get you…We love you.” She hasn’t heard back.
Over 60 km away, in Ramallah, in the Israel-occupied West Bank, 23-year-old Dana is in her fifth month of pregnancy, and her doctors have recommended rest and self-care. But the urban planning engineer has turned up at the Al-Manarah square in downtown Ramallah for a protest demonstration against the Israeli air strikes on Gaza.
Her lawyer-husband’s large, extended family is in the Gaza Strip, which the Israeli Air Force has been pounding with aerial strikes since the October 7 attacks by the Hamas. Some of their relatives were in the Al-Ahli Hospital, which was the target of the October 17 explosion — while Israel has blamed the explosion on a misfired rocket of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Palestinians have pointed fingers at Israel. “They were taking shelter in the hospital when the blast happened,” she says.
Tair and Dana are on two vastly different sides of a conflict that has riven a region with one of the most complex and intractable geographies. Yet, the two are united by the searing pain of seeing their loved ones, and their idea of home and country, coming under attack.
Since October 7, when Palestinian militant group Hamas breached Israel’s famed defences to launch a coordinated attack – the worst in Israel’s 75-year history – that left 1,400 people dead and over 4,600 wounded, the conflict has spun out of control, threatening to spill over into the larger Middle East region.
While Israel has, in response, pounded the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip — killing more than 2,800 Palestinians in an area that’s one of the most densely packed in the world – what holds them back from launching an all-out offensive are the 200 Israelis that Hamas militants have abducted and taken to Gaza.
The stakes are immensely high, but like everything else in this hyphenated part of the world, there are two sides to everything.
As shelling and rocket-and-missile attacks continued, Israel began evacuating people from the border areas in the south, which faced the brunt of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad attacks, and those from the northern areas who were vulnerable to attacks by Hezbollah forces in Lebanon. Those evacuated – an estimated 3 lakh of them – from these border towns and villages have been accommodated in some of the biggest hotels of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, among other Israeli cities.
While most of those displaced are from southern Israel, including the towns of Sderot and Ashkelon, an estimated 30,000 people have been displaced from the north. The Israeli army has got about 5 km of border areas evacuated and the government has sanctioned funds to house the internally displaced. Private companies have also come forward to help and hospitals have volunteered with medical care for the elderly.
In Tel Aviv’s Crowne Plaza hotel, one of the 12 hotels earmarked for hosting the displaced families, help desks have been set up by the social services department of the local municipality. A social worker manning the desk said, “We are here to help with whatever these families need — medical advice, toys for kids, a pair of shoes if someone needs it, psychological help, or just an ear if someone needs to talk.”
Aviya Davidi, a resident of Sderot, is among those at the hotel. “We try to believe that in the end, we will have a normal life. I have been forced to run away from my city, leave my house, see my friends and family running away from the things they know, all to be able to stay alive.”
In another part of the country, at the Herbert Samuel Hotel near the old city of Jerusalem, a young mother of three is trying to keep up with her toddler while handling another baby in the stroller. “My husband has gone to fight the war, and I am here with my in-laws and children…we have to be strong and take care of ourselves.”
Down Route 50 that connects Jerusalem to Ramallah in the West Bank is another group of displaced – the Gazans.
On the outskirts of Ramallah, in a large community hall in the Al-Ram neighbourhood, more than 100 workers sit around, their belongings bundled into large, black garbage bags. Residents of Gaza, they were working as construction and agricultural workers in Israel when the conflict broke out, following which Israeli authorities rounded them up and brought them to the West Bank.
Sadeq, a 69-year-old daily-wage construction worker who earned about 300 to 350 shekels (less than 100 USD or Rs 7,000 a month) in Israel, is now away from his family in Gaza. “I am grateful to the Palestinians here that I am being taken care of. But I am worried about my family in Gaza. I spoke to them on the phone, but I am not sure when things will go bad,” he says.
The banquet hall where they have been staying for the last few days is run by a wealthy Arab family from Jerusalem, but Sadeq and the others may have to move out soon – there have been rumours of Israeli soldiers swooping in since the community hall is located very close to the Israel-West Bank border.
While the Israeli government has declared its intent to go after Hamas in Gaza, one of the major challenges facing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is that of the Israelis that Hamas has held hostage in Gaza.
The Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) has admitted that about 200 Israeli citizens are in the Gaza Strip, around 30 of them children. Additionally, about 100-200 Israelis are considered missing, with no information available about their location. Most of those held hostage in Gaza are believed to be alive, but as the hours pass by, Netanyahu’s challenge gets tougher.
“Almost everyone knows someone who has either been killed or abducted or injured,” said Ashley Perry, a former senior Israeli government advisor who has worked with the Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Defense and Intelligence, adding that there is “maximum two degrees of separation” between the victims and most citizens.
Almost every day, the Israeli Foreign Ministry has been getting families of hostages and victims to share their stories, in a bid to shape international public opinion against Hamas.
While most families seek revenge and want the Israeli government to go after the Hamas leadership, some — especially those whose family members have been taken hostage — advise caution.
On October 7, Hamas militants took away Ditza Heiman, 84, a former social worker, from the Nir-oz kibbutz in southern Israel. Ditza’s family is emphatic about their position: they “don’t want Israel to destroy Gaza”.
Ditza’s daughter, Neta Heiman Mina, a member of the Israeli chapter of the Women Wage Peace organisation, recently wrote in an Israeli newspaper, “My mother and her friends in the kibbutz were people of peace. In her name, do not destroy Gaza.”
Ditza’s grandson Moran broke down as he spoke to The Indian Express on phone. “We want our grandma to come back home. If they destroy Gaza and bomb Gaza, then it’s a problem,” he said, his voice quivering.
Yakov Argamani, whose daughter Noa was seen in a video being captured by motorcycle-riding Hamas attackers during the attack on the Supernova music festival, said in an interview to local media, “Gaza parents are in pain, too. I’m fighting in my own way. Not with anger, but through dialogue.”
United in crisis
An embattled Netanyahu is being criticised for having taken his eye off the security apparatus at the Gaza border as he was focussed all his attention on the contentious judicial reforms.
Dr Ilana Shpaizman, Professor, department of political studies at the Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv district, said, “Over the last 10 months, the government’s attention was focussed on the judicial reforms, and they prioritised that over the security and welfare of citizens. The attention of the Israeli government was very limited on the security at the Gaza border; rather it was more focussed towards the West Bank. That is one of the reasons for the October 7 attacks.”
“Our enemies watch us very carefully… They saw the country was divided and seized the opportunity,” said Perry, the former senior Israeli government advisor.
Yet, for now, as the country battles its worst crisis, Israelis have come together to back the government in its “national mission”.
Talking about how this unity comes from the “existential threat” that Israelis face, Perry said, “As former Israeli PM Golda Meir told Joe Biden in 1973: We Jews have a secret weapon in our struggle with the Arabs – we have no place to go.”
As this sense of fear and insecurity plays out, the tensions between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs – one of the many fault lines that mark its society – have sharpened.
Jonathan Spyer, a Jerusalem-based analyst who is director of research at the Middle East Forum, said the issue of co-existence is a matter of concern in these times of heightened anxieties since 20 per cent of Israel’s population is of Arab ethnicity, making them the largest minority group.
“Thankfully, there has been little or no incident of any Israeli Jew targeting those of Arab origin. So far, there has been no such misguided vengeance since there is a general sense of solidarity and of a national mission that needs to be completed,” he said.
Dr Tareq Abu Hamed, an Israeli-Arab resident of southern Israel, who heads the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, said that despite Hamas’s atrocities, there is no substitute for dialogue.
“We will all have a very difficult time overcoming this trauma. We all hope that this war will end very soon. Both sides are suffering. No one wins in a war, civilians on both sides are suffering and dying. The only way to stop this cycle of violence, this cycle of war is to talk, build understanding, and build trust.”
Sitting in a cafe run by an ex-Israeli special forces personnel in downtown Ashdod, south Israel, Oshrit Birvadker 35, a foreign policy analyst and an Indian Jew whose parents moved from Maharashtra to Israel in the 1960s, says, “Maybe we needed a war to regain our unity.”