Crisis in Israel

Personal reflections on the war - Gadi Perl


Gadi Perl the MASORTI representative on the JNF Israel board where he serves as vice-chairman. In his private life, he is an attorney in Jerusalem who is also a PhD candidate at Hebrew University in CyberLaw research, focused on regulation of autonomous vehicles and artificial intelligence.

The war through my own eyes

The war erupted when Israel was led by a right-wing, nationalist religious coalition that had come to power after a campaign of incitement and hatred against Arabs. Our government was headed by a man preoccupied with his own political survival, who had weakened the public service and filled positions with yes-men. His coalition partners were either ultra-Orthodox parties, which believed their voters should be exempt from military service despite their right-wing worldview, or extreme right-wing religious parties with racist tendencies, led by individuals once suspected of nationalist terrorism against Arabs. As a liberal and a leftist, I would have preferred a different, saner government. But we did not choose to be in this situation.

The war also found us more divided than ever. Complacent about our enemy, we were engaged in internal debates over checks and balances in our democratic system. The liberal camp, to which I belong, had mobilized to block a government campaign aimed at weakening the courts and other safeguards. Just a month before the war, I privately confessed to friends that I was tired of the hardships of life in Israel. I contemplated stopping my reserve duty and focusing on earning money and taking care of my family instead of volunteering.

But the massacre changed everything.

Living in Israel means accepting that war is always a possibility. As someone who grew up during the era of bus bombings and suicide attacks in Jerusalem, it takes a lot to shake me. But that's precisely what happened. In a single day, the entire perception of a "strong Israel" collapsed. Within an hour, about 22 of our settlements were captured. In settlements that failed to defend themselves, 10 percent of the population was either killed or kidnapped within 6 hours. We were witnessing a massacre on a scale greater than the historical pogroms in Europe. It was horrific.

Missiles fell constantly. In Jerusalem, which was relatively calm, we rushed to the shelter several times a day with our 6-year-old daughter and 1-year-old baby. We had to leave our aging dog behind as she struggled with the stairs. In other cities, my friends lay on top of their children, hoping to shield them from death. News of mounting casualties never stopped. Suddenly, we went from being a superpower to just another Middle Eastern nation with a precarious existence. Schools were closed across most of the country due to the relentless rocket fire. It felt like we were living in the opening scene of a disaster movie. Most of those living within 5 kilometers of the Lebanese border were evacuated, and hotels became refugee centers. Hundreds of thousands were displaced, fleeing in fear that the horrors of the south would be repeated in the north. Our faith in our security system was shattered. People who, like me, had homes and jobs just days ago were now homeless, crammed together without even a change of clothes.

And then it got worse.

Reports started coming in from the villages near Gaza, revealing that merely killing us was not enough for Hamas. Friends who entered Kibbutz Beeri described mutilated or burned bodies and entire families wiped out. The morgues were overwhelmed, forcing the setup of air-conditioned tents. The identification center tripled in size to cope with the massive influx of bodies and parts of bodies. The condition of the bodies was shocking - mutilated to the point of being unrecognizable, with signs of sexual abuse. They beheaded people and burned people alive.

The casualty figures in the news were staggering. I lay awake at night, haunted by the reports - a 10-month-old baby, 7 children between 2 and 9 years old, and 29 between 10 and 17. At first, I refused to believe it. It was beyond comprehension. But reality kept knocking at my door, relentlessly.

I witnessed some of the horrors with my own eyes. Although I was a bit old for military service and not a combat soldier, I found myself recruited for the war effort. My skills as a criminal investigator were needed at a new center established to identify the belongings of fallen and kidnapped IDF soldiers. The massacre was so gruesome that everything resembled one vast crime scene.

How do I know Hamas dismembered bodies? Because I had to deal with the aftermath. I vividly recall cases where two different identification numbers were assigned to one person's remains. When I inquired about the discrepancy, they explained that the body parts had arrived separately, and it took time to realize they belonged to the same individual. How do I know Hamas desecrated bodies? Don't ask. Suffice it to say, the scum documented much of what they did, recording it on phones. The evidence exists.

I lost faith in humanity. It wasn't just Hamas who participated in the slaughter. Over 1,000 Gazan civilians, upon hearing what was happening, came to "join the fun." I was appalled by videos showing crowds rejoicing on Gaza's main street as our wounded and raped captives were paraded.

Everyone in our liberal society mobilized. Some enlisted to fight in the army, while others joined the civilian apparatus that stepped in to fill the void left by our failing government. Anyone capable of contributing did so. Facilities that had served as protest headquarters in the fight against judicial reform transformed overnight into centers for civilian aid. Israeli high-tech capabilities were harnessed for everything from building warehouse management software to fundraising, media outreach, and a task force addressing every conceivable need. Some even volunteered to go through the horrific footage, hoping to glean information about the abductees. I pray they are all taking care of themselves. I must mention the silent erosion of medical and mental health teams, whose members suffered from nervous breakdowns due to what they witnessed. Some acquaintances stopped sleeping, saying they were fortunate not to be involuntarily hospitalized like their colleagues.

We didn't know how to respond. News reports showed army generals terrified to enter Gaza, knowing Hamas had set traps and the Iranians were preparing an external response. We needed to build capabilities and wait for American backup. Everyone I knew was called up. In most families, fathers were barely home, while mothers with children and no school tried to keep the economy functioning.

From the beginning, reactions from abroad were astonishing. Initially, there was support and empathy, but critical voices quickly emerged. Some remained silent in the face of the massacre as if it never occurred. Others equated us with Hamas as if it were a war between two sides where bad things happen. Some even blamed us for the situation, citing our prolonged forceful control of Gaza. We were at a loss facing much of the messaging from abroad.  Frankly, we were in shock and too preoccupied to explain or defend our position. We had to overcome a massive military failure and a dysfunctional civil government that failed to respond to the needs of many victims properly. We were overwhelmed, some more than others.

Watching international media and social media while living in Israel felt like inhabiting parallel realities - the reality I lived in and knew and the reality portrayed on social media and foreign networks.

I knew Hamas had killed many children because there was a night when their bodies were evacuated from Beeri to the center next to us. But the news never mentioned their names. I later understood why. No one could talk about names or numbers when identification was still ongoing. In some cases, there was no one left to ask for permission to publish the names because entire families were gone. In others, silence was maintained because the identities of the abductees were considered state secrets.

I knew there were instances of rape, mainly because I understood there were signs on the bodies. Videos from the early days of the war showing female captives being led through Gaza's main street with clear bloodstains also left no doubt. But no one spoke about it. It took me a while to understand Israel's silence - why survivors were unable to speak, and those who treated them could not speak. It took time for me to grasp that for us Israelis, the human dignity of the victim was more important than propaganda needs.
When the invasion began, I also knew the IDF was attacking with massive force. I understood there would be many casualties. After all, if a missile is fired at you from a house, you fire back. And if a missile is fired at a school in Rishon LeZion, you return fire to the source. With Hamas not wearing uniforms and firing from within civilian facilities in densely populated Gaza, it was bound to be bad. Let's be candid - we didn't really care. We were too busy trying to create some stability, some modicum of safety for those still living in the south of the country and keeping our eye on our northern border simultaneously.

But then accusations of genocide began. At first, we didn't take them seriously, but as they were repeated, it seemed the world was becoming convinced. In many ways, we were to blame. The anger in Israel was justified, but statements from government members were insanely exaggerated, allowing for the appearance that we were on a path of revenge. The crossings to and from Gaza were closed, but instead of gradually opening them for food, Israel began a mantra of "humanitarian aid for humanitarian data" about the kidnapped. It sounded nice but was far from wise. It was true that they were holding our abductees without even disclosing their condition, and Hamas had indeed acted with much popular support. But what was my government thinking? That we would take revenge on Hamas through Gaza's babies? This decision only harmed Israel. Now, trucks filled with food, water, and medical supplies are making it into Gaza, and armed Hamas militants are sitting on top of the trucks, firing at their Gazan brethren who are desperate to bring a few bites of food and some water to their families.  But who believes Israel any more?

The invasion of Gaza was carried out mainly by the reserve army - social workers, high-tech professionals, teachers, and philosophy students called to war. They were not young or professional soldiers. I knew the claim that they were killing civilians at point-blank range was delusional. I know the people who went to war, and it takes more than three weeks to turn civilians into serial killers. Moreover, I knew that before their withdrawal, Hamas had settled scores and liquidated many civilians. Some were tied to houses, not allowed to leave, and even houses were booby-trapped. Bodies were found tied up during the invasion. In one neighborhood where a friend of mine was stationed, almost every other house was booby-trapped or had an opening to a tunnel. It meant tearing down almost all the houses in the area, because otherwise, you could never cleanse it. It was terrible.

Our government quickly began to disappoint. Instead of dealing with the emergency, they returned to politics. Under the fog of war, they went back to granting sectoral budgets. Instead of ensuring media coverage showing bound Palestinian bodies found during the invasion, the Prime Minister was busy trying to please the right-wing government and fend off impeachment. It was clear to everyone that if you take out Hamas, someone else has to rule Gaza immediately. Because if there is no water, someone has to take care of it. And if there is no food, someone must provide it. But the discussion was avoided and did not take place. With each passing day, Israel looked worse.

And reality? That didn't bother the Israel haters.

When local UN workers turned out to be Hamas officers[1], or when abductees returned and said that schoolteachers had held them captive or they were used as slaves to prepare food while being starved[2] - that was ignored.

Even an admission by a hospital director that he was actually a Hamas man passed in silence[3].

When the first Israeli female survivor spoke and the first reports were circulated, the silence of women's organizations left us in shock. People I respected in academia, like Timnit Gebru, spewed anti-Jewish filth and rhetoric, accusing Israelis of atrocities as if we had gone back hundreds of years and Jews were again being accused of preparing matzah with the blood of Christian children.

And the abductees? Someone was dying there every day. They didn't always tell the public immediately, but everyone knew. The elderly and children have no chance out there. And our fighters? They were living in fear in Gaza. Fighting in Gaza may be necessary, but it is still a nightmare when every building can explode on you at any moment, and a missile can come firing out of every window. The impossible decision to shoot or not to shoot becomes a daily occurrence when shooting means you probably take out a family that was being held inside the house. Not shooting means you probably don't even live long enough to regret it.

Reports of attacks on Jews in the United States and Canada were surreal. And leftist Jews calling for a ceasefire, as if we could decide to stop, seemed delusional to me.

And the government? An embarrassment. A minister eating popcorn at a cabinet meeting. But this is the government we have, and you can't change it in the middle of a war. It's not like we can rebel against the government during wartime. After all, as angry as I am at the government, at the end of the day, there is a more urgent problem - an enemy who has proven that he not only wants to kill me but also my wife and children. I don't want to imagine what he will do to them before he kills them, and maybe even after.

As the days went by, things only got worse. From day to day, the government lost more credibility, returning to petty politics and strengthening its cronies. While fighters returned home dazed and sad, those left behind went back to spreading hate.

I forgot myself in the whole ordeal. It took me some time to breathe again. I used to cry quite a bit on the way home from reserve duty. For a whole month, I was angry at the world. There was a phase when I realized that I was in a constant state of fight-or-flight, sweating even when it was cold, afraid to sit down because something might happen. I wasn't allowed to complain. I couldn't. I have a home. I knew where my family was. They were all safe.

Even now, I'm not really back yet. I'm still behind at work after two months of reserve duty, with half of the projects requiring adaptation to the situation. I'm short on patience. But my situation is much better than others'.

And why am I telling you all this?

So you know that in Israel, most people are good people. People who do not want to kill all the Palestinians and think resettling Gaza is absurd. People who don't even dream of genocide. Israelis are people on whom fighting was wished on them. Do you think Hamas didn’t know the IDF would enter Gaza and do what we have had to do?  Israelis are people fighting for our homes and families.

We are trying to restore security under impossible conditions when on the other side, there are serial killers and rapists who use the civilian population as human shields. We go to sleep worried. We wake up worried - worrying about our children and praying for a better solution than what we have.

We don't really need help or money. What we need is a hug and friendship. To have you see us with compassion. We need to be seen as we are, a people taught by their scholars to “love peace and to pursue peace.”  We would love to dedicate all our intelligence and resources to fulfilling that vision.

Gadi Perl


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