Inside story'October 7 changed everything'

Their dovish hopes clipped, some Gaza border residents make peace with becoming hawks

Civilians who followed Hamas into Israel to loot and vandalize communities on October 7 showed their true faces, says one Nir Oz survivor who no longer sees conciliation as possible

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Irit Lahav sits at her temporary home in Kiryat Gat on February 14, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)
Irit Lahav sits at her temporary home in Kiryat Gat on February 14, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

The fact that the Hamas terrorists who invaded her kibbutz on October 7 wanted to murder everyone there came as no surprise to Irit Lahav, a peace activist from Nir Oz, where one in four residents were killed or kidnapped.

Even before the massacre, Lahav had entertained no illusions about Hamas. Like many other kibbutzniks and moshav residents with dovish attitudes near the border with Gaza, she had seen how the group deliberately targeted civilians, including by firing rockets into residential areas at specific times to increase loss of life.

Yet she had always believed that Hamas’s actions were distinct from and unrepresentative of the wishes of the silent majority of Palestinian civil society — ordinary and decent people whom she imagined were concerned primarily with providing for their children and improving their own lives under difficult circumstances.

That belief was shattered on October 7, by what she says were “hundreds of civilians, including women and children, who followed” behind the terrorists, invading Israeli communities to celebrate and join in the pillaging, vandalization and destruction of Israeli communities.

“This wasn’t something I had factored in,” said Lahav.

In the wake of October 7, Lahav and other Israelis who had supported and campaigned for territorial compromises with the Palestinians as a pathway to peace now say they are being forced to reconsider their views.

“I used to think Palestinians were good people, like you and me. That Hamas were thugs who got in the way of the population’s desire for a good life: a pretty home, a good car, a good job, a nice yard; good schools for the children.” Lahav said from the temporary home she shares with her daughter Lotus, a new three-bedroom apartment on the fifth floor of a residential project in Kiryat Gat where many Nir Oz survivors have relocated to.

“After October 7, I realized I was wrong. Just as the Israeli government represents Israelis, Hamas represents the people of Gaza.”

Lahav, a travel agent who used to belong to a group of volunteers who would drive Palestinians in need of medical treatment from Gaza to hospitals in Israel, now believes that “all of the people of Gaza, all of them, hate us to a degree where they would murder babies and pillage our property with zero compunction.”

A Palestinian and his children sit in the car of a volunteer for Road to Recovery, an Israeli group that helps bring Palestinians to medical treatment in Israel. (Courtesy of Road to Recovery)

The Road to Recovery, an Israeli nongovernmental organization that helps Palestinians reach medical treatment in Israel, remains operational, although its volunteers have brought patients only from the West Bank since October 7 because Israel is not issuing entry permits from Gaza. “It’s not simple, but I want to keep feeling human,” Yael Noi, the nonprofit’s director, told (Hebrew) Channel 12 in December.

‘Reassessing matters’

In Kibbutz Gvulot, situated about 13 kilometers (8 miles) from the border with Gaza, Bella Haim, a Holocaust survivor whose grandson Yotam Haim was abducted to Gaza and later killed there accidentally by Israeli troops, is also “reassessing matters,” she said during a talk last month with delegates of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Bella Haim, the grandmother of Yotam Haim who was killed by Israeli soldiers after trying to escape from Hamas captivity in the Gaza Strip, speaks during a special conference to mark International Holocaust Day at the Knesset, on January 30, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

“I used to go to so many demonstrations for peace and coexistence. And now I’m at a crossroads when it comes to my beliefs. October 7 changed everything and I’m searching for the right path,” she said.

In Kibbutz Kfar Aza, where terrorists killed over 60 people, a doormat outside Shahar Shnorman’s home is still emblazoned with the Arabic-language words for “welcome.”

The longtime peace activist, one of only three residents now living in the evacuated community, thinks Gazans should be allowed to return to the homes they fled when Israel launched its still-ongoing military campaign to topple Hamas in Gaza. He doesn’t want the small enclave’s living space eaten by a buffer zone and opposes an Israeli reoccupation.

Shnorman still believes a diplomatic solution to the conflict is possible, but no longer thinks the time is ripe and he backs Israel’s military campaign, he said. Once it ends, he believes Israel should adopt a policy of meting out a harsh response to any infraction of the “firm border” he would like to see between Israel and the Palestinian territory.

Shahar Shnorman and Ayelet Cohen have coffee in the yard of their home in Kibbutz Kfar Aza on January 25, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Outside the Gaza border region, some in the cultural elite, which generally trends left, are grappling with similar dilemmas.

Earlier this month, Idan Raichel, one of the country’s most prominent musicians and a vocal proponent of Arab-Jewish coexistence, told the Yedioth Ahronoth daily in an interview that “the war has made it impossible not to shift rightward. Even for leftists.” He cited “the terrorists who went into children’s bedrooms, a space of innocence; the rapes, the torture, the abductions.”

Ivri Lider, another prominent musician and gay rights advocate, has said since the war broke out that he could no longer have written the lyrics “an enemy may actually be a friend,” which appear in one of his songs.

October 7, he told the Walla news outlet, “makes it very difficult to have the basic desire for dialogue, rapprochement and coexistence in mutual dignity.”

Singer Achinoam Nini, who goes by Noa abroad, disputed Raichel’s assertions on Facebook. Nini, a left-wing activist who in the past attributed (Hebrew) Palestinian terrorist attacks to alleged racism by Israel, argued that one can feel pain as an Israeli “and at the same time cry for the many innocents on the other side and reach out to help them,” she wrote. “Do not sentence millions of people, condemning them to death with a wave of your hand, even when your eyes are flooded with tears every day every hour.”

Idan Raichel (left) and Emma Shapplin in Tel Aviv, 2019 (Courtesy YouTube screen grab)

A reduced vision of coexistence

Lahav, like many other Israelis, is still figuring out what her changed worldview means for her convictions, she said in her Kiryat Gat apartment. Its sunny areas were occupied by her favorite plants from her yard in Nir Oz, which she salvaged and is nursing back to health after weeks of neglect following the surviving residents’ hurried evacuation on October 7. On the wall hung an ornate Tibetan tapestry that the Dalai Lama gave her when she was living in his Buddhist temple in Dharamsala, India.

Hiding in the sheltered area of her home with her daughter, some five months earlier, Lahav had heard young boys from Gaza looting their residence, she said. Her neighbor reported hearing a woman singing softly as she browsed through the neighbor’s home for items to steal. Another neighbor reported hearing at least one child speaking in Arabic. Items stolen from Nir Oz included sunglasses, electronics, jewelry and even women’s underwear.

Resettling Gaza with Israelis is out of the question for Lahav, who also opposes West Bank settlements. But her vision for coexistence has been reduced to a bare-bones version of what she used to aspire to, she said.

“We will live here, they will live there, with a robust fence and harsh military retaliation for any violation of the peace,” she summed up.

Ministers and MKs dance during a conference calling to resettle the Gaza Strip at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem on January 28, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

She is neither eager to resume volunteering to drive Gazans into Israel for medical treatment nor impressed with the images of devastation coming out of Gaza, she said. “I don’t believe a word they’re saying. Not the death toll, not the images,” she said. “I know the Israel Defense Forces avoids killing civilians whenever possible and I don’t believe [the Hamas-reported] figure of 30,000 dead.”

The number comes from unverified statistics by Hamas sources in Gaza which do not differentiate between civilians and combatants. Israel says it has killed some 13,000 Hamas-led fighters.

Footage taken by Israeli troops in Gaza is making Lahav readjust her perception of the living conditions there before the war. “When I thought of Gaza, I thought about barefoot children on dirt roads. That’s the sort of images we kept seeing out of there. But now the soldiers are streaming images of beautiful, paved streets. High-rise apartment buildings. It was all a show! They took foreign media to their filming locations. So now I don’t believe any video they show,” said Lahav.

One of the buildings in Kiryat Gat where survivors of Kibbutz Nir Oz are staying, pictured here on January 3, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

She herself is less than thrilled about giving up the pastoral pathways of her kibbutz for a Kiryat Gat midrise. The working-class Mizrahi city, where left-wing parties garnered only 13% in the previous election, is a far cry from her previous liberal milieu. But the former regular participant in protest rallies against the right-wing government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has nothing but good things to say about her former political rivals.

“For the better part of a year, right-wingers in this country spoke about us kibbutzniks with disgust, like we’re pampered, Ashkenazi, liberal elites,” she said. But following October 7, “the same people were devastated by what happened to us. They’re embracing us in the most amazing way in Kiryat Gat,” she said.

Lahav still harbors hope for true Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation, but for the time being, she’s pessimistic that those she once tried to foster peace with will be ready anytime soon.

“As long as their school shows are about ‘martyrs’ killing Jews, there is no way forward,” she said. “So change right now seems to me to be doubtful and far away.”

Most Popular
read more: