Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe.
TEL AVIV — As Israel presses on with its military campaign, one would be hard pressed to find reports of what Gazans are enduring or the dire conditions they face when scanning the country’s television channels and media. It lies in stark contrast to what the rest of the world is seeing.
The humanitarian crisis isn’t brought up in everyday conversation much either — it just doesn’t figure. Woe betide mentioning it, and one is more than likely to get rough pushback, including accusations of harboring antisemitic bias.
Former Minister of Defense Naftali Bennett has been particularly tough on international reporters raising the issue, emphasizing that Israel is still being targeted by Hamas rockets in his fiery exchanges with the press. Blaming Israel for the humanitarian crisis in the Palestinian enclave is “like attacking the police for fighting murderers,” is a regular riposte of his.
But while empathy for the enemy is rare in any war, there seems to be a glaring absence here.
Of course, one explanation for this lack of empathy is that Israelis have none to spare, focused as they are on the captives remaining in Hamas’ hands — an estimated 136 of them. Although Israeli officials do suspect that at least 25 are already dead, and one intelligence analyst told POLITICO the number is more likely 30.
There are also rising fears over how the hostages are being treated by their captors — especially the women. According to Israeli doctors and military officials, several of the younger women and girls freed in a hostage deal last year suffered violent sexual abuse while in captivity. And some of those freed detailed their experiences in firsthand testimonies to the Israeli war Cabinet last month.
The plight of the hostages is only fueling Israeli rage — one that is all-consuming, leaving no room for disquiet about the well-being of Palestinians caught in the war.
The nation also continues to grieve the 1,200 Israelis murdered in the October 7 attacks, with understandable fury over the barbaric killings and the rapes that were prologues to some of the slayings. More details of what exactly they endured on that gruesome day, and what their relatives have gone through since, keep emerging all the time.
Just last week, the father of Sergeant Adir Tahar, who died in combat on October 7, described how he got his son’s beheaded corpse back on Israel’s Channel 14 News. “They fired a rocket at him and three grenades, according to the autopsy I received, and his whole body was filled with shrapnel,” he said. “Unfortunately, his body was abused after his death . . . they just beheaded him and took his head back to Gaza with them.”
Eventually retrieved by Israeli special forces from an ice-cream store in Gaza, “in a duffel bag, next to some of the terrorist’s documents and tennis balls, they found my son’s head,” he said.
With narratives like this filling the Israeli airwaves, empathy is naturally in short supply. A poll by the Israel Democracy Institute last month found 40 percent of Israelis believe the harm done to Gaza’s population should only have limited bearing on Israel’s military decisions, while the same percentage said it shouldn’t be taken into consideration at all.
The Israeli government, for its part, insists it takes the risk of civilian deaths into account. “Those who accuse Israeli soldiers of war crimes are people imbued with hypocrisy and lies, who do not have a single drop of morality. The army is the most moral army in the world,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said recently.
Indeed, Israel is facing the awful dilemma of defending itself from a militant organization that exploits its own people, purposely putting them in the line of fire. Hamas wants massive Israeli retaliation — that’s always been the group’s strategy— so it can portray Israel as the villain, drawing international opprobrium and eroding Western support.
So, then why play Hamas’ game at all?
According to academic Michael Milshtein — the former head of the Department for Palestinians Affairs in the Israel Defense Intelligence agency — it is here that something seems to have shifted in Israel. “Until October 7, there was a perception among some Israelis, including politicians, that the majority of Palestinians in Gaza are different from Hamas, which controls them through fear and oppression, and [that they] share a universal human longing for a good life,” he noted.
But that perception shattered after the attacks, when the Gazan public didn’t protest Hamas and “participated in the victory celebrations that included abuse of the kidnapped and the bodies,” he said. Milshtein monitors Gazan media closely, and is struck by the lack of public criticism of Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar for inflicting on Palestinians carnage exceeding that of the Nakba — the flight and expulsion of an estimated 700,000 Palestinians during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.
Milshtein isn’t alone in noting this shift either. Victory celebrations in Gaza and the absence of condemnation by Palestinian Authority politicians in the West Bank — who were all too ready to deny any atrocities took place on October 7 — have enraged many. It has has also diminished any residual empathy that might have remained, leading to the growing lack of distinction between Hamas and the broad swathe of Gazans — even Palestinians as a whole.
The more extreme elements and hawkish personalities on Israel’s right wing have been quick to stir this brewing pot, pushing their Jewish supremacy agenda and assisting their advocacy of annexation in hopes that October 7 will, indeed, bury the Oslo peace process for good.
Hawks like Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir have been opposing any easing of the humanitarian disaster in Gaza. “So long as our hostages don’t even get a visit from the Red Cross, there is no sense in giving the enemy humanitarian gifts,” he said in November. To do so would only allow Sinwar “to sit comfortably in his air-conditioned bunker, watch the news and continue to manipulate Israeli society and the families of the abductees.”
But it isn’t only the usual suspects on Israel’s far right who feel no empathetic pull. In a fraught Knesset session in October, when an Arab-Israeli lawmaker bemoaned the civilian death toll, exclaiming “a child is a child” regardless of ethnicity, politician Meirav Ben-Ari of the liberal-centrist Yesh Atid party announced: “The children of Gaza have brought this upon themselves.”
Back in 1982, Israel’s peace movement had mobilized 400,000 individuals to protest the first Lebanon war, when the Israeli Defense Forces invaded southern Lebanon after a series of attacks by the Palestinian Liberation Organization across the border. Comparatively, last Thursday, the number of those who took to the streets was less than 2,000.
Speaking to the diminutive antiwar rally amid chants of, “Not Ben-Gvir, not Hamas, we’re sick of extremists,” activist Rola Daoud asked: “How much blood must be spilled before we understand that this war is destroying us all? Until we understand that there won’t be peace on one side if it isn’t on the other, that our fates are interconnected?”
Similarly, activist Heli Mishael noted “that when we start marching in the direction of peace, we know that many Israelis and Palestinians will join us.” But that all seems unlikely until both sides start to appreciate each other’s suffering, finally expunging dreams and fears of extermination or expulsion.
As Arab-Israeli lawmaker Mansour Abbas said, voicing his worries about the ongoing dehumanizing and its consequences: “The right thing is to look at these events like October 7 and the aftermath in a different way — not as part of the political conflict but at how they hurt innocent people, to look more from a human dimension.”