Young and old, female and male, Israel’s civilians are the prime victims of Hamas war

Israel’s leadership misread and underestimated Hamas. With a horrific, mounting death toll, and numerous citizens taken hostage in Gaza, the days ahead will be challenging indeed

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Bodies of slain Israeli civilians in the southern city of Sderot on October 7, 2023 following an attack by Hamas terrorists. (Oren ZIV / AFP)
Bodies of slain Israeli civilians in the southern city of Sderot on October 7, 2023 following an attack by Hamas terrorists. (Oren ZIV / AFP)

Throughout one of the blackest days in Israeli history on Saturday, military veterans and commentators drew comparisons between the intelligence and military failure to thwart the infiltration of hundreds of Hamas gunmen from Gaza and the failures at the start of the Yom Kippur War 50 years ago.

In some ways, however, Saturday’s Hamas onslaught — which saw terrorists burst through multiple places along the border and gun down hundreds of Israelis in towns, moshavim and kibbutzim, as thousands of rockets battered southern and central Israel — marked a still graver security failure for Israel.

More than 2,600 Israeli soldiers lost their lives in the 1973 war in order to protect Israel’s civilians, and save the country, from an enemy onslaught. In Saturday’s terrorist war, while IDF bases and posts were targeted, it was the civilians who bore the brunt of the attacks. And as the horrific toll of the confirmed dead climbed relentlessly, hour after hour, military sources warned that the numbers were likely to rise much higher.

Hours into the assault, security chiefs were reporting “active” operations to confront and flush out the Gaza terrorists from no fewer than 22 sites in the south. As Saturday turned into Sunday, troops were still confronting gunmen, and still working to extricate Israeli civilians, in some of those locations.

As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the nation in an address on Saturday night, Israelis young and old were slaughtered in their homes. Many, many young people were massacred at an outdoor nature party. Bodies were strewn on the sidewalks of southern Israeli towns. Reporters at some of the scenes said what they saw was “unbearable.” Many clips and photographs of the terrorists’ repugnant attacks were too disturbing for publication.

Some of those who died had reached out hours earlier for help, for rescue, from the security authorities, in vain. Desperate relatives who had remained in contact with them reported the lines going dead.

Palestinian terrorists transport an abducted Israeli civilian from Kibbutz Kfar Aza into the Gaza Strip on October 7, 2023. (AP Photo/Hatem Ali)

In numerous other instances, Israeli civilians were abducted — taken into Gaza by the terrorists, who bragged later that they were being held in inaccessible places far beyond Israel’s reach. As the awful day continued, parents and husbands and children appeared on TV and spoke on the radio, reporting first that their loved ones had disappeared, and then, that they had seen them on social media being taken to Gaza or, in one case, traced their phone to the heart of the Strip.

In October 2011, Israel freed over 1,000 Palestinian security prisoners to secure the release from captivity in Gaza of a single Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, who had been abducted from his army base inside Israel five years earlier. Over a thousand prisoners for a single soldier. No wonder Hamas leaders were confidently predicting that their abduction of dozens upon dozens of Israeli civilians would secure the release of all Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails.

But Hamas’s leaders, and their Iran state backers, have still wider ambitions — seeking to encourage West Bank Palestinians and Arab Israelis to take up arms, and, as of this writing, weighing whether to unleash Hezbollah across the northern border — in the cause of what an Iranian official called “the liberation of Palestine and Jerusalem.”

As was the case 50 years ago, Israel on the eve of Saturday’s Hamas onslaught was the complacent captive of an unfounded conception — overreliant on a much-vaunted security barrier that proved anything but impenetrable, convinced that Hamas was not seeking confrontation, and therefore with far too much of its military force deployed elsewhere. Hours after the initial wave of terrorists, other Gazans were running across the now-porous border, as the IDF rushed to try to reseal the Strip.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a televised address on October 7, 2023. (screen capture/ GPO)

Netanyahu promised Israelis that, as well as clearing the Hamas terrorists from everywhere they infiltrated, Israel’s security forces would utterly destroy Hamas’s capabilities in Gaza. Warning Gaza’s residents to “get out now,” he intimated that an immensely far-reaching operation was in prospect. A cabinet decision in the early hours of Sunday spoke of the intended destruction of the terror groups’ military capacity and their capacity to rule Gaza.

That is precisely the kind of operation widely demanded in an Israel reeling from Hamas’s murderous successes. But it is greatly complicated by the sensitive fact of those many abducted Israelis, and also by the concern that a devastating war on a single front, against what are by no means the most potent of Israel’s enemies, could easily develop into a still more devastating multi-front war.

Israelis are all “in this together,” Netanyahu declared, and our “combined strength” will prevail. Facing a vicious, ruthless enemy, backed by an Iranian regime bent on our elimination, Israel will indeed need every ounce of its much-strained national unity in what the prime minister acknowledged will be “challenging days ahead.”

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