Before Hamas’s unprecedented incursion into Israeli territory on October 7, Kibbutz Be’eri was a cherished corner of paradise.
Located in the northwestern Negev desert, its avocado groves and cotton, wheat and barley fields were shared among the close-knit group of residents practising the communal way of life rooted in a socialist brand of Zionism.
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Its 1,100 inhabitants had grown accustomed to the sounds of the air defence system occasionally intercepting incoming rockets from the nearby Gaza Strip, but visitors were often startled by the glaring reminder of a decades-long conflict that otherwise went on largely unseen.
Ariella Giniger visited her friend Vivian Silver, a 74-year-old, Canadian-born peace activist, two weeks before the surprise attack killed 1,200 people in southern Israel, including about 100 Be’eri residents.
During an early morning walk in the wilderness, they came across the fence running 41km (25 miles) northwards along the perimeter of the enclave. “I was a little nervous looking at Gaza,” Giniger, 70, told Al Jazeera. “I said, ‘Let’s go back, so that we’re in time for yoga’, and we had a beautiful breakfast.”
On October 4, days before the manicured landscape became a scene of death and devastation, Silver, a founding member of the Israeli-Palestinian Women Wage Peace (WWP) movement, marched from Jerusalem alongside Israeli and Palestinian women advocating for a peaceful, women-led solution to the conflict.
The march was the culmination of years of work, and they gathered around a symbolic negotiation table as they reached the shores of the Dead Sea. “We called for an agreement as opposed to a ‘settlement’ or an ‘arrangement’,” Giniger, an active member of the WWP, said. “An agreement is something that both sides agree upon. We thought any mother in the world would want that.”
Three days later, on the day now commonly referred to as Black Saturday, Hamas fighters tore through the fence that had kept two worlds largely separate. They targeted border areas in Israel, many of which happened to be historical leftist strongholds where residents identify as proponents of peace.
Silver, who moved to Israel from Winnipeg in 1973 to engage in peace work, was confirmed this week to be among the victims. Her remains were identified in Kibbutz Be’eri, dashing hopes that she might have been captured and taken to Gaza with about 240 other people.
Talks of reconciliation among Israeli leftists have largely been replaced by raw sentiments of pain and grief amid widespread support for Israel’s war on Gaza. In the hours after the Hamas attack, Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu promised to “take mighty vengeance” and “turn Gaza into a deserted island”. He launched a relentless bombing campaign followed by a ground invasion that has since killed at least 11,500 Palestinians in Gaza, including more than 4,700 children.
Some bereaved Israelis are determined not to let their losses be used to justify taking revenge on the people of Gaza, even as any prospects for peace seem more outlandish than ever. “We are just drowning in our own violence and blood,” Yonatan Zeigen, Silver’s 35-year-old son, told Al Jazeera. “Israel won’t cure our dead babies by killing more babies.”
Silver was one among several victims known to regularly volunteer to drive sick Palestinians from the Gaza border to hospitals in Israel for treatment. Before June 2007 when Hamas took control of the enclave and Israel imposed a blockade, she would visit Palestinian communities in a bid to forge dialogue.
“My mother believed in human encounters. She did a lot to get people from both sides together to humanise each other and to see that, in the end, we all want peaceful lives,” Zeigen said.
“The concept of resistance cannot be eradicated with force but with peace. So the question now is, is there an option for peace?”
Individual efforts to build bridges often run counter to the security approach undertaken by the Israeli government. An estimated 2.3 million Palestinians have been confined for the best part of two decades to live in 365sq km (140sq miles) under severe restrictions on the economy and their movement. According to the Israeli watchdog B’Tselem, in 2022, Israel denied more than 20,000 requests from patients seeking medical care in Israeli hospitals. The grounds for rejection are never disclosed.
Gaza, described as an “open-air prison” by human rights watchdogs, was born out of the mass exodus of Palestinians during the war that followed the creation of Israel in May 1948. More than 700,000 Palestinians were displaced from their homes, an event remembered as the Nakba, which means “catastrophe”.
Across the fence surrounding the crowded strip, kibbutz residents live in towns that once bore Palestinian names with allowances for home expansions as they have more children. The Law of Return passed by the Israeli parliament in 1950 gives Jews from across the world the right to relocate to the land and acquire citizenship, a process known as “making aliyah”.
Competing claims to the land and failed attempts at brokering a two-state solution have long rendered the Israeli-Palestinian conflict one of the most intractable in the world.
Udi Goren, a photographer and activist, was part of a group of Israelis and Palestinians offering dual narrative tours of the region before the recent hostilities ground tourism to a halt.
Goren’s own family has now been embroiled in the conflict. His 42-year-old cousin, Tal Haimi, was taken captive in Nir Yithak, a kibbutz 35km (22 miles) from Be’eri. The father of three is thought to have left a bomb shelter to face the assailants when it became clear that a ground assault was taking place.
“He’s a really stand-up guy, always the first to offer help and has a constant smile on his face,” Goren told Al Jazeera. “I don’t see how the continuation of this war is going to bring my cousin back.”
Goren has been a vocal member of a group of relatives demanding the return of all captives in exchange for a ceasefire in Gaza. While the call for revenge among the Israeli public has been “loud and clear”, he said he is “horrified” at the number of civilian deaths in Gaza.
“I don’t think that what we’re doing is in Israel’s interest,” he said. “Winning over Hamas will not happen through war. There’s no way. Making sure that Hamas doesn’t come back after this war means reaching major agreements about the regional status quo and giving hope to Gazans.”
‘War is easier than dialogue’
Speaking on behalf of the captives’ families at the United Nations on October 25, Rachel Goldberg-Polin said she has “lived on a different planet” since the shocking news that her 23-year-old son, Hersh, had been abducted by Hamas.
The Israeli American was among 3,000 revellers attending an electronic music festival 5.3km (3.3 miles) from Gaza as Hamas fighters breached the fence and entered southern Israel.
He ran for cover in a bomb shelter and was later caught on camera as he was abducted by Hamas. The lower half of his left arm appeared to have been blown off by a grenade, and he had fashioned a makeshift tourniquet out of clothes to stem the bleeding.
Choked with emotion, Goldberg-Polin spoke of the pain of not knowing whether her son was alive or had died minutes, hours or days ago. But she also stressed that in times of trial, everyone across the globe is called to ask themselves: “Do I aspire to be human, or am I swept up in the enticing and delicious world of hatred?”
Speaking to Al Jazeera, she said the “cycles of violence that humans put themselves through are not productive”. “We go through these cycles of hatred, war, violence and revenge, and the people who get hurt are the innocent,” she added.
She described Hersh as a voracious reader with a dry sense of humour and a love for travel and music. Members of the campaign Bring Hersh Home also described him as a fervent anti-racist and part of Hapoel Jerusalem, a politically left-leaning football club rooted in socialist principles.
“Dialogue is always the way to deal with conflict because what’s much easier is going to war,” Goldberg-Polin said. “There are segments of my society that I’m not proud of, and it is important to be able to say: ‘I’m Jewish, and I do not agree with the atrocities that Jewish terrorists have perpetrated against our Palestinian neighbours. They are unacceptable.’”
“But this is not a competition of pain. Nobody wins. We have all suffered terribly,” she added. “Fear of the other is much easier, but there are still people who want a society that can work for everyone.”