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The night many Israelis realized we might not win this war

An evening that many hoped would be marked by continued (even if muted) celebration morphed into hours of frustration, anger and a sense of impotence

Last night, Saturday night, was supposed to have been another (muted) celebration. Thirteen hostages, in relatively good condition, had been released by Hamas on Friday evening, and last night, Israelis gathered around their TV’s to await another thirteen (or fourteen, depending on which list you believed).

By the time we tuned in after Shabbat, it was clear that something was very wrong. The transfer of the hostages from Hamas to the Red Cross, that had been scheduled to take place a few hours earlier, was reported by some to have taken place, by others to have been delayed. As the hours crept by, it was clear that it had not happened. Hamas was accusing Israel of not having lived up to Israel’s end of the bargain in terms of which Palestinian prisoners would be release (Hamas said that the agreement called for those arrested earliest to be released first, while Israel said it had never agreed to that) and the amount of humanitarian aid making its way to the northern part of Gaza.

Israel insisted it has lived up to every agreed upon stipulation, and even Qatar and Egypt agreed. That didn’t matter to the New York Times, of course, which reported that the facts were “in dispute.”

As the evening progressed and turned into night, it was clear to all Israelis that we were being played with.

Even Friday night, it turns out, has been more horrifying that we’d all known. Hamas had approved the hostages leaving Gaza by the most circuitous route possible, adding considerable time to the drive. Hostages later reported that as the vehicles transporting them were leaving Gaza, they were pelted with rocks (which could not have happened had Hamas decided to prevent it)—several of them assumed that they were being moved only to be lynched.

They weren’t lynched, but last night, Israelis felt that they had been duped. Numerous commentators and experts, Nir Dvori chief among them, could contain themselves no longer, and their rage was obvious, even on live TV.

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Over the course of the evening, Dvori and other made the following observations:

  • Hamas’ games were expected, but not this early in the process. With days to go until the first fifty are released, it is clear that Hamas is going to drag this out for as long as possible, hoping that Israelis will have lost their stomach for returning to battle, hoping that perhaps the war might end more or less now. What is the government going to do on Monday or Tuesday, when the “cease fire” is supposed to end, but Hamas has not returned the hostages it promised?

  • What happens if Qatar assures Israel it can get even more hostages back, as long as we don’t renew the fighting? Does Hamas survive thing, despite all promises that it will not?

  • Dvori said that he hoped that as the hours ticked by, the political and military leadership were meeting to decide what they would do if the clock struck midnight and the hostages has not returned. But it was clear to many of us that of course the hostages would be returned by midnight … just late enough to have reminded Israelis that we’re in control of very little right now.

  • As for the Israeli-owned ship that Houthi terrorists in Yemen commandeered, several people noted that American forces in the region could have prevented the takeover. But they didn’t. It was easier for the Americans, Dvori noted, simply not to get involved—which means that it’s not out of the question that Israel could find its shipping lane through the Red Sea to Eilat completely closed.

  • Why not hit back at the Houthis?, someone asked. Here, something surprising. The Houthis, one person said, have warned that if Israel strikes them, they will hit Saudi Arabian refineries as they did in 2019, to which, it will be recalled, the United States did not respond. In essence, therefore, the Houthis have set up a scenario that if Israel hits them, it is causing Saudi Arabia to be attacked—when reviving the Saudi normalization deal is still an Israeli priority.

In one of the hotels to which members of one kibbutz have been moved, the members of the kibbutz gathered together to watch the release on a large screen TV together. But as the hours went by, frustration gave way to rage at Israel’s impotence, and little by little, they drifted away.

Said one kibbutz member, “Nothing has changed. For twenty years, Hamas has decided everything. When they’ll fire rockets. When they’ll fire grenades. When they’ll light fires with balloons. They they’ll attack. They’ve been in charge for decades, and even this war has changed nothing.

It was hard to disagree.

Israel’s stated goals in the present war are clear: absolute destruction of Hamas, and the return of all the hostages. Millions of Israelis went to sleep last night clearly aware that we may end up with neither.

And if that happens, will Israeli citizens move back to the kibbutzim along the Gaza border, where they can be shelled again? Will Israelis move back to the north, which is now emptied of civilians? Or will Israel have ceded territory, without even a single enemy boot on our ground?

In the video above, pilots say explicitly that from their perspective, the purpose of the war is to make it possible for those citizens to return home. Not surprisingly, the video was made a few days before the events of Saturday night.

And if we have, people are wondering aloud, in what way has Zionism really changed the existential condition of the Jewish people, which is what it had promised to do.

No one had very good answers.

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And what about inside Gaza? In the video below, you see the massive flow of civilians from the north to the south, something that Israel had encouraged, so that it could fight in the north against terrorists, not civilians. (Those who argue that Israeli media are not showing the human side of the catastrophe on the other side of the border are clearly not watching Israeli TV.)

In recent days, there are reports of thousands and thousands of Gazans to returning north—to nothing, in most cases, but it’s clear that Israel’s position during the “cease fire” (a contested term, a subject for a different time) may well be eroding.

It’s going to be a long, slow week. Much is not clear:

  • How many of the hostages will we get out this week?

  • Will Hamas succeed in dragging out this cease fire? What will Israel decide to do or not to do on Monday or Tuesday? Are we grinding to a non-decisive stalemate?

  • Are fears that Israelis will not have the stomach for renewing the battle justified?

  • Will the international community prevent Israel from resuming the war?

  • Without all the hostages and without Hamas destroyed, in what way did Israel win this war?

Those hoping that Israel will resume the fighting have one thing on their side. Even those who believe that Netanyahu can survive this crisis politically admit that there’s virtually no chance of that if Israel does not emerge with a win.

Netanyahu, ironically, has personal interest in actually doing the right thing.

Impossible Takes Longer is now available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble and at other booksellers.

Israel from the Inside with Daniel Gordis
Israel from the Inside with Daniel Gordis