Army vehicles zipped along the national highway in southern Israel as the kibbutzim and towns on either side lay deserted. Up to 250,000 people have been evacuated since Hamas’ attack on Oct. 7, and the region has turned into a staging area for the armed forces.
Ofakim, a small town 15 miles from Gaza — the farthest attacked by Hamas that day — lies on the outside edge of that zone, not evacuated but still a ghost town. There were no automobiles on the streets.
Some shops in a local strip mall were open, catering to a handful of soldiers, local survivors and young men from other places nearby. Mazal Oaknin, 60, had come out to purchase daily necessities. She had been moved here from Sderot, 2 miles from Gaza, where Hamas killed more than 40 people.
“I saw Hamas kill our neighbors,” she said, recounting those terrifying moments. “My son, husband and I somehow managed to escape in the car,” she said, still trembling. “We cannot go back, not while Hamas is still in Gaza.”
But Oaknin was aware that this meant war: more bombs and more deaths on the other side. “I cry for the children dying in Gaza, I feel very sorry, very sorry,” she said, more tears welling in her eyes. “But what can we do?” Oaknin’s distress reflected the emotional bind in which many Israelis find themselves. Eliminating Hamas means war, while many people here were peace activists, who for years had advocated a negotiated solution to the conflict.
That moral dilemma is pronounced in the kibbutzim, which have a long history of peace activism, even though at first they were established not just to till the land in collective farms and live a life of idealistic socialism, but also to mark the borders and defend the state of Israel.
Imri Bunim was on the front line against Hamas at his kibbutz, Re’im, as a rapid force responder on Oct. 7. He said he had always looked forward to the day he could go on his bicycle to the seaside in Gaza and have a coffee and a conversation with the people who lived there. “I dreamed of Gazans coming to play football with us every week, every day,” he said, “and us going there to have coffee. That was the dream.”
But Hamas’ violence has shaken Bunim. He feels war is the only path for Israelis, for now.
“I am sorry for anyone dying in Gaza, but after what Hamas has done, it needs to be eliminated.”
Avi Dabush, a political activist and the executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights, had just enough time to grab his phone and a water bottle before he rushed to the bomb shelter with his wife. They waited anxiously for nine hours while the army fought off Hamas and Islamic Jihad in his kibbutz, Nerim, a stone’s throw from Khan Younis in the Gaza strip. At least five people in the kibbutz were killed.
“This is the first time I am not saying just stop the war, no,” he said. “I believe now we have met evil and we must break it.” He spoke with certainty, but was also clearly conflicted. Why should his safety come at the price of his principles and a huge loss of life and property in Gaza? “Is there a way to hurt less people?”
Oaknin, Bunim and Dabush still wanted peace with Palestine and to live side by side with Palestinians. They mourned the rising death toll in Gaza, too. However, while they found it hard to articulate, it was clear that in the absence of a definitive peace deal self-preservation would take precedence over principles and ideology.
On the outer rim of the kibbutzim, ethical conundrums were less of an impediment and attitudes hardening. People asked for more guns, expressed mistrust of their Arab neighbors and hailed the far-right Israeli politician whose antics and policies have plunged the Palestinians deeper into hopelessness and created a situation that Hamas exploited for its own ends.
“Itamar Ben-Gvir cares about us, I like his ideas,” said a cafe owner in Netivot, a town near Gaza, “Things he said will happen, have happened.”
Ben-Gvir is the leader of the far-right party Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) and notorious for his virulently anti-Arab and racist rhetoric. At the age of 19 he appeared on television with a Cadillac emblem that he stole from the car of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and said: “Just like we got to this emblem, we can get to Rabin.” A few weeks later a right-wing fanatic named Yigal Amir assassinated Rabin, who had signed the Oslo Accords with Yasser Arafat two years earlier.
Otzma Yehudit, which openly embraces the views of the assassinated extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane, has over the past five years moved from the fringe to the mainstream of Israeli politics. It has achieved this without softening its positions. In 2021 Ben-Gvir pitched a tent in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem, where settlers have been claiming Palestinian homes under Ottoman-era contracts. He has repeatedly tested the prohibition on Jews entering and praying in the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, which is one of the holiest sites in Islam. Ariel Sharon infamously sparked the Second Intifada with his September 2000 visit to Al-Aqsa.
After last year’s election, Israel’s fifth in three years, Netanyahu broke the political stalemate by inviting the far-right parties to join his governing coalition. He appointed Itamar Ben-Gvir as national security minister, with authority over the police and border patrols in the West Bank, despite his record of violent antagonism toward the Palestinians. Ben-Gvir has expressed the desire to create a “national guard” under his direct authority — something his rival Benny Gantz, the former defense minister, has called a “private militia.” In the year since he became national security minister, Ben-Gvir has issued orders that made conditions for Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails significantly worse, from a reduction in the frequency of family visits to a diminished quality of food. The dissent created by the deterioration in conditions was a further incentive for Hamas to take Israeli hostages and seek a swap. Haaretz and other media outlets have also reported an increase in abuse of prisoners by prison guards.
Meanwhile, settler violence against Palestinians in the West Bank has spiked. In 2020 the U.N. recorded a total of 283 attacks on Palestinians and their properties; that number jumped to 625 in 2022 and to 427 in just the first half of 2023. In several cases the settlers were accompanied by uniformed IDF soldiers.
Last year Ben-Gvir proposed a bill that would grant immunity to soldiers for currently punishable acts committed on duty — such as shooting unarmed Palestinians.
Increasing settler violence and disruption of the status quo in Jerusalem and Israel’s peace accords with Arab countries have left the Palestinians feeling abandoned. An official from the Palestinian Authority (PA), speaking on condition of anonymity, pointed to Ben-Gvir’s extreme measures as provoking Hamas’ attack. Analysts said one of Hamas’ goals was to win support for harsher resistance, in part by making the PA look weak.
None of these machinations, however, influenced the views of the cafe owner in Netivot. Ben-Gvir had been proved right in taking a hard line against Palestinians. “Ben-Gvir doesn’t say kill Arabs, he says kill those Arabs who want to kill you,” he said.
In the commercial center of the mixed Arab-Jewish city of Lod, located about 15 minutes’ drive from Tel Aviv, a group of old Jewish men sat outside with pints of beer. All of them were fans of Ben-Gvir. “He is a good man,” said one who identified himself as Bruce Willis at first and later just settled for Bruce. His friend made a thumbs-up sign while the shop owner ran his fingers through his neck and said, “They killed babies,” in reference to reports of Hamas’ attacks, adding, “Ben-Gvir was always right [about Hamas].”
At times of war, emotions are raw and Israelis who live in the southern communities near Gaza that were attacked on Oct. 7 expressed a range of views. While kibbutz residents were struggling to accept that they had to choose war before peace, some of the people in the towns outside the affected zone seemed clearly more receptive to the politics and politicians of the far right. This has far-reaching consequences for the future of Israel and of Israel and Palestine.
According to the latest opinion polls, if elections were held today the centrist National Unity led by Benny Gantz would win 41 seats, up from the 12 it currently holds, and Likud and the Religious Zionists would lose. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s tally would drop from 32 to 19, and the far-right parties — Ben-Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit and the Religious Zionist party of finance minister Belzalel Smotrich — would win five and four seats respectively out of the 14 they won jointly in the last election.
But some analysts believe polls in the middle of a war are not reflective of the actual mood in the country.
“I don’t think these polls are an accurate representation of what’s happening on the ground,” said Eitan Tzelgov, an Israeli politics specialist at the University of East Anglia in the U.K. “From these polls to the election is a long process and Netanyahu still holds the power. The far right is still in office.”
Instead, Tzelgov argued that Ben-Gvir and his colleagues in the far right stood ready to benefit from the aftermath of Hamas’ attack.
“The far-right feels vindicated,” he said. It saw an opportunity to further polarize Israelis and push for its long-term objectives, he added. “They see the attack as an opportunity to, first and foremost, remove Palestinians,” he said.
There is evidence that the far right’s ideas are becoming more mainstream. A recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by two Israeli MPs, one from Likud, Netanyahu’s party, and one from the supposedly centrist and liberal Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party, called on European nations to accept Palestinians from Gaza as refugees, a proposal widely condemned outside Israel as an extreme form of ethnic cleansing.
Ben-Gvir commented on the article on X (formerly Twitter), saying: “At the moment of truth, everyone is talking about Jewish Power.”
Expelling the Palestinians from Gaza and the West Bank has long been a goal of the religious right in Israel, a vision propagated by Ben-Gvir’s guru Meir Kahane, who said Arabs “must sit quietly or get the hell out.” Kahane’s Kach party was so vicious and blatantly racist that the Knesset voted to ban it in the late 1980s, but in today’s Israel his successors have risen to prominent positions and are pushing that ideology.
“I think everyone from the far right to the far left agrees that Hamas needs to be fought and destroyed,” said Peter Lintl, a specialist in Israeli politics at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik). “The difference is over what to do after the war.”
“Because there is a real shock in Israeli society, Ben-Gvir and the likes are trying to push the policy rightward,” Tzelgov added. But not just vis-a-vis Palestinians. “They want to sow more divisions within Israeli society. One might ask what is going to happen to these weapons he is issuing once the war has ended.”
Ben-Gvir has boasted about liberalizing gun regulations and since the attack more than 180,000 applications for weapon licenses have been submitted. “This war proves that we need to arm our citizens, the local security squads, in parallel to [having] a strong police force,” Ben-Gvir said.
But some are concerned these weapons will be used not just against Palestinians. “Will these weapons be used to suppress any resistance to the government?” Tzelgov asked. “And there will be resistance to the government.”
In the fog of war, few Israelis are looking inward, but there is a palpable concern that the militarization of Israeli civilians will have a huge impact both on Israeli democracy itself and on ties between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs, leaving the latter feeling even more insecure and laying the ground for future unrest. And yet, in this moment of insecurity many Israelis are inclined to arm themselves.
In Ofakim, a 22-year-old university student sat on a table at a cafe with his friends. “I feel the need for a weapon,” he said. “It’s important for self-defense.”
After the attacks, Imri Bunim and fellow residents of Kibbutz Re’im were moved to a hotel in Eilat on the Red Sea to recover from the trauma and wait for the war to end.
Nevertheless, he was still imagining a day when the Israelis will live peacefully alongside the Palestinians and when he can wave his flag in peace and Palestinians theirs.
He said he vehemently disagreed with Ben-Gvir and that Hamas’ leaders and the Israeli far-right are two sides of the same coin.
“Hamas is dangerous, also Ben-Gvir is dangerous,” he said.
“After Gaza is free of Hamas I want Palestinians to live there, but I want them to know that what Hamas did will never never happen again.”
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