Conversations in Israel: A complicated mix of emotions

Before October 7, Israelis who spoke to Al Jazeera believed in living side-by-side with Palestinians. No more, they say.

Israel flag
People embrace at a protest for the captives in Gaza [Nils Adler/Al Jazeera]

Various locations in Israel – The events of October 7 shook Israeli society to its core.

Within hours, Israel had launched a relentless aerial bombardment of Gaza. Within days, hundreds of thousands of reservists had been called up for service. Within weeks, a ground operation of the enclave was under way.

Israel said its goal was to destroy Hamas and free the captives taken along by its fighters to Gaza. Western observers doubled down on the label of “terrorist” to describe Hamas and #HamasisISIS trended on social media, comparing the group with the armed group ISIL (ISIS).

Announcing myself as an Al Jazeera journalist became steadily more difficult. Many people in Israel viewed it as the “voice of the enemy”, as one man told me. Others just politely declined to speak.

Around Israel, people who did agree to speak to me described what they felt was an irrevocable change after October 7 in who they perceived as “the enemy”. Often, it was specifically Hamas, but sometimes it was a broader grouping: Palestinians, Arabs or Muslims.

The day their lives changed

Shaded from the unforgiving sun by a hulking concrete seaside hotel, adults reclined on rickety benches, children shrieked with laughter as they chased each other in a tumble-down courtyard in the southern Israeli city of Eilat on a sweltering November afternoon.

All members of the same family, they had been evacuated from their homes near the Gaza Strip as Israel’s assault continued.

They recalled the fear they felt on October 7. It was a day that changed their lives forever, they said; now they were in limbo, waiting for their area to be deemed safe enough to return.

Nachum, a man in his 30s, said he lost one of his best friends at the Supernova festival, an electronic music event held in southern Israel that was attacked by Hamas fighters on October 7. An Israeli police report stated that 364 people were killed at the festival and 40 were kidnapped.

“Do you think it will be a long war,” I asked him. “I hope so because I want Gaza gone,” he replied definitively.

“Did you feel like that before October 7,” I asked. “All the time, all the time,” he said.

Tel Aviv is covered in posters and messages which honour the hostages being held in Gaza.
Tel Aviv is covered in posters and messages about the captives being held in Gaza [Nils Adler/Al Jazeera]

Along the city’s scenic seafront, 30-year-old Linor walked with her younger sister and their children. They had taken a few days by the Red Sea coast to escape the continuous air raid sirens wailing through their village near the Gaza border.

She exuded confidence, her hair in a thick fringe contrasting with closely shaved sides. But when she spoke about why she had come to the seaside, her expression softened and emotion flashed across her face.

Her husband’s cousin, a young woman she described as “an angel” who spent her free time playing the piano, was killed on the morning of October 7. She was just one of some 1,200 Israeli and foreign nationals, mostly civilians, who were killed that day. Linor said she had died in her pyjamas, a detail she felt emphasised the brutality of Hamas’s attack.

Linor did not direct her anger towards Palestinians in Gaza. She said her family had always enjoyed good relations with the people from Gaza who had worked in the olive farms around their home. Her family had gone to Gaza a lot when she was young. Her mother had bought her wedding dress from a store in Gaza City.

“Hamas is the only difference between us and them,” she said. “Our soldiers want to keep us safe. Hamas wants to use people in Gaza as human shields.”

‘I have Arab friends, I feel sorry for them too’

On a sleepy residential street in the city of Ashdod, Yulia, a 38-year-old Russian-Israeli, was sitting outside a small bar she owns with her Ukrainian husband.

She had previously served in the Israeli forces but was not involved in the operations in Gaza as she had to look after her young child.

Hamas must go, she said, adding that she believed they stole money meant for the people of Gaza.

Slowly, her language changed, and she spoke in broader terms of “problems” with Muslims and Arabs, categorisations she used interchangeably to mean Palestinians. Her language was vague but what she was insinuating was clear. It was not just Hamas that was to blame for the events of October 7.

“I understand their mentality,” she said knowingly but chose not to elaborate.

A short walk away in the city’s residential centre, Shila, a soft-spoken 25-year-old florist, was preparing an elaborate bouquet.

Admitting there was no actual need to come in to work as there were so few customers, she said it was important to stay busy. She also spoke of the collective pain in the country after October 7.

“The suffering,” she said, her voice cracking with emotion. “You couldn’t understand that it was possible.”

Now, when she looks over the port of Ashdod and sees a ship she does not recognise, she is filled with anxiety, fearing another Hamas attack.

“We’re scared of people coming in from Gaza,” she admitted.

It’s a feeling that did not sit comfortably with her, and she is clear that she draws a line between civilians and Hamas.

“I wish if it wasn’t for Hamas, we could live alongside Palestinians.”

It’s a distinction she said she senses many other residents of her city no longer share, however. “I have Arab [Palestinian] friends; I feel sorry for them, too. It’s going to be hard to be Arab [Palestinian] in this country now.”

A stone’s throw from Shila’s colourful flower shop, Jarin, a chatty 21-year-old Israeli of Georgian heritage, manned the till at his family’s convenience store.

Behind him, an Israeli news channel played on TV, displaying endless reels of footage from the ongoing war.

He said the Hamas attack on the south of Israel had left him in a deep state of shock.

People used to come from Gaza to work and stock up on goods from his shop.

He wouldn’t have described any of them as his friends, but relations had been amicable. Since October 7, he said, they had been permanently shattered.

“They [Palestinians from Gaza] used to eat here, work here, clean our garbage. How can you eat from here and want to kill me?”

He shook his head as he packed a customer’s bag. “Maybe before, there was a chance [to live together]. But now, no.”

Generational trauma

In Tel Aviv, a woman working at an upscale hotel who described herself as a “leftie” said she found herself avoiding drivers with Palestinian names on Gett, an Israeli taxi app.

She was ashamed and asked me not to use her name. She added it was a sign that something “broke” on October 7.

She said Israeli Jews suffer generational trauma related to the Holocaust, and the events of that day have triggered an emotional response.

A young woman, dressed in linen clothing, was sipping coffee and smoking outside a trendy cafe in Tel Aviv. She did not want her name printed on Al Jazeera’s website but admitted that she was still working through her emotional response to October 7.

Some of what she feels does not align with her left-leaning principles, she said, adding that it was too soon to know where she would eventually land.

Source: Al Jazeera