What Israelis see, and don’t see, about the war in Gaza

A new exhibit opened last week at the Tel Aviv fairgrounds under a title that has become infamous: “Nova, 06:29.”

For every Israeli, the name is immediately recognizable as the outdoor rave that turned into a massacre on Oct. 7, with over 300 young revelers killed and some 40 taken hostage. The time stamp connotes the moment Hamas’ cross-border assault from Gaza began, near the fields outside the Re’im kibbutz where the festival took place.

This past Saturday Israelis bought tickets and shuffled into a cavernous hall, now an authentic re-creation of the party itself complete with an empty stage and somber electronic music.

In the “camping area” are tents and coolers abandoned in a panic. Charred cars placed on top of each other in the “parking lot” are situated next to bullet-ridden port-a-potties. And the “lost and found” section features an entire boutique of clothes and makeup kits and shoes left by partygoers either now deceased or too traumatized to retrieve them.

The shoes in particular, one attendee says, evoke similar memorial exhibits for the Holocaust. The Oct. 7 attack was the heaviest loss of life in Israel’s history, with at least 1,200 dead, drawing comparisons in its savagery to the horrors of eight decades ago.

For over two months, as the devastating war that Oct. 7 spawned in Gaza has dragged on, Israelis are reliving it daily – in the media, on the street, and in conversations with each other and the world.

Lost from sight, and the public conversation, is the toll on Palestinians in Gaza, with over 18,000 killed and a million people displaced amid an ongoing humanitarian disaster.

“This gap between Israel and the world isn’t bridged or mediated,” says Meital Balmas-Cohen, a professor of media and political psychology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “In both places the messages are too simple, for a situation that is very complicated.”

Amos Harel, the veteran military correspondent for the Haaretz daily, points especially to an imbalance in Israeli television coverage. The cost, he says, is that Israelis have “no perspective” about the reality on the ground inside Gaza, and about why it has engendered so much liberal anger against Israel globally.

In Israel, heart-wrenching accounts from the survivors of Oct. 7, as well as the relatives of those killed, are aired in the media constantly.

On Israel’s leading Channel 12 television broadcast, this past weekend had a blow-by-blow account of a standoff between Israeli troops and Hamas militants inside a kibbutz where only two out of the 15 Israeli civilians being held hostage survived. Also featured: the story of twin babies orphaned after their parents were shot dead and the harrowing testimony from a Nova attendee who was moments away from captivity after watching her friends be murdered.

The families of the 240 hostages seized have also worked tirelessly to raise domestic and international awareness to free their loved ones.

Pictures of the hostages are omnipresent across the country: on highway billboards, in shop windows, and in schools. On Tel Aviv’s central Dizengoff Street, giant red-stained teddy bears are sat on benches, a reminder of all the children initially taken hostage as well.

With over 100 women and children released last month as part of a temporary truce deal, many are now speaking out about the trauma and abuse they suffered inside Gaza.

The mounting death toll of Israeli soldiers has also been widely covered in the media. Every night, short clips attempt to recount the life of an entire person, and his or her entire world.

This past Friday afternoon, one such funeral for a 25-year-old reservist was aired live by all the major media outlets. In the eulogy, the soldier’s father, former army chief and now senior government minister Gadi Eisenkot, summed up the national mood as he choked back tears.

“You told me that you and your comrades in the company feel that this is a just war, that all the hostages must be returned and Hamas must be defeated after the barbaric and cruel event they committed,” Mr. Eisenkot said, as Israel’s top leadership looked on, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Such a phenomenon is not unique to Israel, Professor Balmas-Cohen submits.

“After a war or terror attack or natural disaster anywhere, there is always a ‘rally around the flag’ effect,” she says. “The same thing happened in Israel. In an instant, all the divisions were put aside and the public conversation united towards a common objective.”

The Israeli media in the current moment is no exception, Professor Balmas-Cohen adds, with the coverage rotating around not just personal stories of tragedy and heroism, but also military strategy and the Israel Defense Forces. The IDF spokesperson has now become a national figure, with his nightly briefings carried live to the entire country. The one exception in Israel is that criticism of the government, often muted during wartime, has continued unabated, even in right-wing outlets.

But what has been lost, some analysts say, is any sense of the other side in the war.

“The country and the coverage are wrapped inside a patriotic bubble,” says Haaretz’s Mr. Harel. “Yes, something terrible was done to us on Oct. 7. It’s a just war, and there’s probably no other way this time, but you can’t live in denial about what’s happening inside Gaza.”

Mr. Harel criticizes the television coverage beamed to the Israeli public in particular for being too “sterile”: vast scenes of destruction, but seldom few people and no close-ups of dead bodies, as is so prevalent in the international media.

“You may have half a minute in the [main] evening news of a faraway image of Gazans searching through the rubble, but it’s only usually in the context of Hamas losing control,” Mr. Harel says. “The news editors think they’re acting like ‘responsible adults,’ trying to shield us like we’re kids – ‘This isn’t good for you.’”

Yet even for those Israelis fully aware of the reality inside Gaza, the lack of understanding from the world, even from Palestinians themselves, engenders deep frustration and furthers the sense of isolation and alienation.

As one prominent Israeli expert on Palestinian affairs, who requested anonymity, puts it: “I feel like I can be empathetic toward the suffering on the other side, inside Gaza. But I don’t feel like that is extended to me and my own people for Oct. 7. Some we hear question whether it even happened.”

The expert has cut off contact, he says, with many Palestinian friends. In a similar vein, many Israelis have cut off contact with those outside Israel who are not similarly supportive of the military offensive in Gaza, just as the Israeli government has reconsidered ties with those foreign capitals and international bodies critical of the civilian and humanitarian toll inside the enclave.

This “us versus them” mindset – manifest now during the Jewish Hanukkah holiday as “the battle between light and darkness” – is a recipe for greater fear, anger, and polarization across Israeli society, says Professor Balmas-Cohen.

With the war not set to end anytime soon, regular Israelis will find it very difficult to break away and disconnect, even if just for a moment.

“You can’t run away from it. It’s everywhere,” she says.

At the exit to the Nova memorial exhibit in Tel Aviv, a small stand was selling commemorative T-shirts (for charity) in black and white colors. The festival logo, now sullied forever, had below it a simple tagline, connoting both resilience and defiance: “We Will Dance Again. 7/10/23.”

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