Israel Reels In Shock, As A New And Bloody Chapter Begins
By: Nic Robertson, International Diplomatic Editor, CNN
From the moment we landed at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport on Saturday, it was clear that this was no ordinary moment in the long and dark history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. We knew that the Hamas attacks that morning had brutally raised the stakes, but we were not expecting to be confronted with their aftermath so immediately.
As our bus made its way from our plane to the terminal building, the wail of sirens screamed through the heavy evening air and the thump of explosions and heavy gunfire vibrated around us. Suddenly the vehicle jolted to a halt and our driver ordered us off.
The passengers, many of whom had clearly never experienced anything like this before, were told to seek shelter. We were in the middle of the airfield, with no cover beyond a few crates and airport equipment, so people just huddled together, some in tears, all eyes anxiously scanning the dark sky, scouring it for incoming danger as Israel’s Iron Dome’s defensive missile intercepts boomed above our heads. Then our driver urged us back on the bus again, and we resumed the short drive to the arrival hall.
Leaving Ben Gurion and making our way towards Gaza, roads that would normally be busy with evening traffic were eerily deserted. All the while, the incessant crackle of gunfire from helicopters and the screech of jet fighter engines told us that the Israel Defense Forces operation to beat back this unprecedented attack was still very much under way.
Unprecedented is a profoundly insufficient adjective with which to describe these events. 50 years ago, almost to the day, when the Yom Kippur War saw Egyptian and Syrian forces launch a surprise attack on Israeli positions, the fighting was primarily a military confrontation. This was something else.
A propaganda video from the al Qassam Brigades showed its militants overwhelming the Erez crossing, one of the most heavily fortified checkpoints along the Gaza strip. But the gunmen streaming into Israel came from the air and the sea, as well as across the land.
Then there were the brutal tactics, nothing like a typical military operation. Hamas gunmen shot at civilians with guns and rockets, slashed and stabbed others with knives, seized hostages, and forced terrified families to barricade themselves in their homes. By nightfall hundreds were dead, many, many hundreds more injured.
Jonathan Conricus, a former international spokesperson for the Israel Defense Forces, described it as a “Pearl Harbor type of moment,” for Israel. “The entire system failed,” he said. “It’s not just one component. It’s the entire defense architecture that evidently failed to provide the necessary defense for Israeli civilians.”
By Sunday morning, we found our way to Sderot, another Israeli town along the Gaza border, where Hamas militants had killed and brutalized many among the population, and had seized the police station. After a fierce firefight, Israeli forces had retaken control of the building, but all that remained of it was an ashen shell. Bulldozers were already working to clear the wreckage, but there were barely any civilians to be seen. Shell casings littered the street, and the twisted wreckage of vehicles was strewn along the road.
Israel Defense Force Spokesperson Major Doron Spielman met me in the town. There he told me how civilians were literally grabbed off the streets and dragged back to Gaza. He vowed the IDF will “do everything” to get them back; “no one will be left behind,” he said.
Even in the long and bloody history of this conflict, nothing that has tipped the balance of tensions like this before. Explosions continued around us. Gunfire, rockets and drones were clearly audible too.
While Israelis try to understand just how such a catastrophic intelligence failure could have left their population so vulnerable, there are more immediate concerns. As Hamas on Saturday called ‘anyone with a gun’ to arms, the IDF too began calling up thousands of reservists. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister leading perhaps the most right-wing coalition in the country’s history, quickly declared a state of war.
The IDF said on Sunday it was still working to secure many of the towns along the border, but the question of what to do about the hostages, dispersed across Gaza and unknown in number, presents a hellish conundrum for Israelis. There are women, children, and elderly among them, and they are not just Israelis – there are Americans too, according to Israeli Minister of Strategic Affairs Ron Dermer, and perhaps other foreign nationals.
The Israeli casualty figures were also startling in their scale – more than 600 dead and perhaps hundreds more to come, Dermer told CNN on Sunday. Officials said more than 2,000 Israelis had been wounded.
Likewise, the consequences for Palestinians are already severe. Israeli forces quickly began pounding Gaza with airstrikes following the attacks, and the stage was set for a massive military response. More than 400 Palestinians were dead by Sunday evening, according to the health ministry in Gaza, while Israeli troops claimed to have killed hundreds of Hamas fighters and destroyed around 800 targets.
For now, with their scores of hostages, this may be the strongest bargaining position Hamas has ever had with the Israelis. But even in the unprecedented nature of this confrontation, there was also the sense of something familiar: this is no doubt the beginning of a fresh and brutal chapter in this intransigent conflict, but once again the possibility of any kind of peace feels more remote than ever.
Credit: CNN International