ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 142

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Inside Story

As trauma of October 7 massacres endures, Israeli support for Gaza war remains high

In a society rocked to its core by the attacks, and which carries memories of a long history of persecution, much of the public feels war is only way to restore safety and security

People walk by photographs of civilians held hostage by Hamas terrorists in Gaza, in Tel Aviv. January 17, 2024. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
People walk by photographs of civilians held hostage by Hamas terrorists in Gaza, in Tel Aviv. January 17, 2024. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Life in Tel Aviv appears normal for Rhona Ukrainsky, three months after Hamas’s devastating October 7 attacks on southern Israel, but the pain and fear are just under the surface, causing her to cry when the subject is mentioned and flinch when she hears a loud noise.

The trauma inflicted by the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust — with terrorists killing some 1,200 Israelis and seizing around 240 hostages — has not faded. Ukrainsky feels distraught over the hatred directed at her country by Hamas and its allies, and fearful for the safety of her three young children.

“Sometimes you just try to keep with daily things, take the kids, go to work,” said Ukrainsky, 35, a finance director at a medical equipment company, who was out walking in the city with her newborn baby in a stroller.

“But it’s lying down there at the bottom of the heart,” she said, unable to contain her tears.

Just over 100 days after October 7, enduring pain is a key reason why polls in Israel show consistently high support for its military offensive in Gaza against the Hamas terror group, even as optimism over whether it can achieve its stated goals has started to erode.

In the wake of the brutal and violent Hamas assault, which was carried out by thousands of terrorists across more than 20 communities, Israel vowed to eliminate the terror group — which has ruled Gaza since 2007 — and return the hostages, launching an aerial campaign and subsequent ground operation.

The fighting has caused extensive damage across the Palestinian enclave and is believed to have displaced more than 85 percent of the Gaza Strip’s 2.3 million residents, leaving many of them vulnerable and exposed to the elements, without consistent access to food, water or medicine.

People inspect the damage following an Israeli airstrike in Rafah, on the southern Gaza Strip, on January 17, 2024. (AFP)

The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza has said that more than 24,000 people have been killed since the start of the war, and 61,000 others have been wounded, though these figures cannot be independently verified, and are believed to include both civilians and Hamas members killed in Gaza, including as a consequence of terror groups’ own rocket misfires.

The IDF says it has killed over 9,000 operatives in Gaza, in addition to some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on October 7. Almost 200 IDF soldiers have been killed in Gaza.

The scale of the deaths and suffering in Gaza have shocked much of the world and prompted widespread criticism of Israel’s actions, including accusations of genocide brought by South Africa at the UN’s top court — dismissed as false by Israel and its allies.

But within the country, the media does not focus on the unfolding humanitarian disaster in Gaza, and for most people, the main concern is doing whatever it takes to keep Israelis safe and restore their shattered confidence.

“It’s not a war that we chose. It was thrust upon us by this terrible invasion and all the atrocities that were committed,” said Ray Parnes, 92, who immigrated to Israel from the United States in 1958. “There’s never been a more just war.”

A pervasive feeling of danger

One reason why October 7 is still so painful for Israelis is empathy with the 132 hostages still being held in Gaza, and with their families. Photos of the hostages are everywhere and tireless campaigning by the families is covered daily by the media.

People walk past posters of the hostages still held captive in Gaza at a 24-hour rally marking 100 days since October 7, at “Hostages Square” in Tel Aviv, on January 14, 2024. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Another is the relentless drip-drip of harrowing details about what happened on October 7, including sexual violence against women, still emerging from witness accounts.

Televised funerals of soldiers killed in Gaza are also an emotional wrench in a country where most adults are required to complete a mandatory military service and identification with the army is strong.

Family and friends of Israeli soldier Master Sgt. (res.) Zechariah Pesach Haber attend his funeral at the Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem on January 17, 2024. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

“For the rest of the world, October 7 is something that happened three months ago, but Israelis are still living it every day,” said commentator Chemi Shalev.

In a society steeped in the history of antisemitic persecution, from Biblical times to the Holocaust, the scale and ferocity of the Hamas attack awakened fears ingrained into people’s psyche since childhood, said political scientist Tamar Hermann.

She pointed out that Jewish holidays such as Passover, Hanukkah and Purim commemorate moments when the Jewish people escaped from or revolted against persecution, or survived attempted extermination.

“The political culture and religion and everything here socializes Israelis into believing that danger is everywhere all the time,” said Hermann, the academic director of a polling unit at the authoritative Israel Democracy Institute.

Scenes of celebration among some Palestinians after October 7 and polls showing support for Hamas rising in the West Bank, both prominently covered by Israeli media, felt unbearably painful and threatening to most Israelis, she said.

‘No other place for us’

Hermann said street protests against the war in Gaza, seen across the globe, and condemnation by some governments and UN officials, reinforced Israelis’ sense of being alone in a hostile world, needing to rely only on themselves.

“It makes me feel like there’s no place other than Israel for us,” said Ukrainsky.

Protesters hold up banners, flags and placards as they walk along the Embankment by the River Thames during an anti-Israel demonstration, in London, January 13, 2024. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)

Oren Persico of the Seventh Eye, an independent website covering Israeli media, said one of the reasons why many Israelis felt the criticism abroad was unfair was because they were not seeing what the rest of the world was seeing in Gaza.

Persico said mainstream domestic media were showing images captured by the military, such as strikes on buildings seen from the air, or by journalists embedded with the military, but covered few personal stories or harrowing scenes like those receiving blanket coverage outside Israel.

“You do not see the grief of Gazans,” he said, attributing this to editorial choices. “The rationale is that showing those pictures might hurt the Israeli war effort.”

For Ukrainsky, like for many of her compatriots, Israel has no choice but to fight Hamas, and Palestinian suffering is another tragic consequence of what Hamas did on October 7.

“I feel very compassionate for the suffering of the innocent civilians there in Gaza, but it’s too difficult to do this operation [without harming them]. We must do what we need to do to protect ourselves as a state and as a nation,” she said.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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