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‘Now isn’t the time’: Israel’s left conflicted on future after Hamas attack

Tel Aviv, Israel – Danielle*, a soft-spoken 22-year-old, walks past a series of high-rise apartment blocks in Ashkelon, a city on Israel’s southern coast. The sounds of explosions in the nearby Gaza Strip echo across the nearly deserted city.

A self-described leftie, Danielle says the events of October 7, when Hamas broke out of the Gaza Strip and killed 1,400 people in surprise attacks of southern Israel, have challenged her political views.

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“I think that after that Saturday, people who believed in peace do not believe in it anymore. It became personal. They [Hamas] came into the kibbutz, and they were just massacring people.”

She says many of her politically left-leaning friends have also changed their views. Before October 7, she says there was a will to understand the perspective of people in Gaza who supported Hamas but now that has gone.

“Before, I think the left really believed in peace, and we need to look at their side – they’re just doing it because they are poor. But I think at the end of the day, I am paying taxes for Gaza’s electricity and water, but Hamas is just taking that money and investing it in rockets instead of education.”

The events of October 7 have deeply affected Israeli society. The country is embracing a wave of nationalism as the military conducts a military campaign in Gaza.

More than a month after the Hamas attacks, Israeli flags hang from almost every street lamp on Israel’s motorway network, and the government espouses a near-constant stream of jingoist sabre-rattling.

This atmosphere has resulted in many people on the left, who have seen their views shift to the right, now wrestling with an internal conflict as they reflect on where they stand in an unexpected and emotionally charged period in which traditional political divisions have, at least temporarily, fallen away.

An ’emotional response’ from the left

A raucous group of left-wing protesters hold up placards emblazoned with anti-government slogans on Eliezer Kaplan Street, a bustling thoroughfare in central Tel Aviv.

One contains an illustration depicting a red, bloodied handprint over the image of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Ohad Gur, a tall, 50-year-old engineer, tells Al Jazeera that he has not changed his views since October 7: “I am left-wing, so I do think we need to release all the prisoners, get into negotiations right now, don’t go into the Gaza Strip.”

However, he acknowledges that many people on the left have shifted their views, some of which include a “more militant” approach.

He puts this move down to an “emotional response” at a time when a strong military operation might feel logical but is a reaction that he believes “will pass away little by little”.

About 100 metres [110 yards] from the anti-government protest stands a row of white tarpaulin tents covered in posters containing images of Israelis kidnapped by Hamas on October 7 and now being held captive in Gaza.

Family members of the captives mingle with members of the public who have come to show support. Messages scribbled on placards show solidarity with the families of the October 7 victims. Yellow ribbons, a symbol for those seeking the release of Israeli captives that first appeared in 2008 in support of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was captured and taken to the Gaza Strip by Hamas in 2006, are handed out to passers-by.

Talia Keinan, a 45-year-old artist, and Gai Sherf, a 46-year-old musician, sit on plastic chairs in the shade, having come to mourn the death of their mutual friend’s parents who died on October 7. Their friend’s brother was taken to Gaza, but they have not received information about whether he is dead or alive.

Talia says many of her friends who were left wing have become more “patriotic” since October 7. She says it is an emotional response, also driven by fear, when people feel the need “to defend themselves”.

It’s a shift that concerns her.

“There is a thin border between defending yourself and revenge, and I cannot count on this government knowing this border because revenge will lead to another revenge.”

Gai says although it is a traumatic period for Israelis, he doesn’t want to get caught up in the nationalistic fervour. “As I see it, there was something very extreme and shocking and painful and hurtful done by those people of Hamas. Then the question is, how do we respond to it?” Taking a long pause, he continues: “My response is I want to act differently, not to get into this vicious circle they invite me [into].”

In a trendy, cavernous cafe in occupied East Jerusalem, Dennis* tells Al Jazeera that he has seen many people traditionally on the far left who have recently said things that appear out of character but he chooses to ignore them because he believes they are driven by “rage” and “emotion” after the Hamas attacks.

He says although he has also been deeply affected by October 7 and wishes “Hamas would disappear from the earth”, he does not support a “massive military army operation in Gaza”. It is a view that he says could make him the target of right-wingers, so instead, he chooses to “focus less on politics and more on escapism”.

Nadav Hakham, a 27-year-old consultant who says his political views are more right of centre and spoke to Al Jazeera over the phone, says there is a feeling in Israel that there is “an existential threat”. He says this mood has caused the political spectrum to unify around common defence goals – at least temporarily.

He says he had many friends from the “deep left” with whom he had many arguments before who were deeply shocked by the events of October 7 but feel “the progressive world” is now “betraying them” by criticising Israel’s response.

Now, he says, they are “very much involved in pro-Israeli events”.

At a Palestinian-Israeli solidarity event in Baka el-Garbiya in northern Israel, Aldema, a slight, quick-witted photographer in his 30s, looks on as attendees call for a peaceful settlement to the war.

It’s a sentiment he says he shares to some extent, but he says the events of October 7 have left many like him who live in kibbutzim conflicted.

When Hamas attacked southern Israel, its fighters swarmed several kibbutzim near the Gaza Strip, killing and kidnapping members of the communal settlements.

It has left deep emotional trauma within the larger kibbutz community, whose members largely vote for left-wing parties.

There is an additional frustration, he says, that many within the community were sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, including himself.

“Hamas did not kill settlers. … All the communities who got slaughtered were mostly pro-Palestinian,” he says.

Now, although he still wants peace, he says the left needs to be more “realistic” regarding the need for some form of military response.

Too early to know ‘where Israeli progressives will land’

It’s unclear just how permanently October 7 will alter Israeli left-wing politics and, in particular, party politics, activists and political leaders say.

“It’s all super emotionally charged and not yet processed in people’s minds to draw conclusions,” says Roee Aloni, director of public outreach at B’tselem, an Israeli human rights group. This, he says, makes it too early to determine “where Israeli progressives will land”.

However, he says that often during periods of conflict, many leftists veer to the right, and in the current period, he says, “some are really expressing extreme right sentiments”.

Ofer Cassif, a member of the Knesset and a leader of the leftist Hadash coalition, says there is “confusion” among many leftists who previously opposed occupation but now feel the “very existence of the state of Israel” is under threat.

Others, he says, feel “disappointed by the international left”, which they perceive as guilty of hypocrisy in not condemning Hamas for its attacks on Israel.

Members of the Knesset feel that in the short-term, politics in Israel are so heated that those who even show “sympathy for the children of Gaza” are facing persecution, Ofer says. In October, he was suspended from the Knesset for 45 days after he accused the Netanyahu government of using the October 7 attacks to engineer a “final solution” in Gaza with the elimination of Palestinians in the enclave the goal.

Yet, in the long run, opposition among the left to occupation “will and must revitalise”, he says.

That won’t be easy.

“As always everywhere, extremism feeds extremism. And a dichotomy of us against them divides along nationalistic lines instead of ideological and shared values,” Roee says.

“Add to that the fact that we have a government that is set on purposefully radicalising the Israel public and inciting it against Palestinians.”

‘Now is not the time’

For many, it is simply a time to put political wrangling on hold.

A small stretch of pavement separates the two protests in central Tel Aviv, the idea being that criticism of the government is kept separate from the families who are undergoing the emotional turmoil of losing their loved ones.

However, sometimes, the two mix as people express frustration with Netanyahu and his cabinet over his handling of the situation with the Israeli captives.

At one point, a woman pulls down a poster and furiously tears off a part that contains an anti-government message and stuffs it into a rubbish bin. She then places the remainder of the poster with an image of a captive on the wall beside her.

An impassioned argument erupts nearby. A man with an open floral shirt pleads with a protester, using a nickname for Netanyahu: “Why are you connecting responsibility with Bibi? Just focus on the victims. The families of those kidnapped don’t want politics. No left or right. This is not the place.”

Rey Kanterewicz, a 39-year-old who works in tourism, has come to show solidarity with the captives’ families. He agrees that it is important in the current war to put aside political gripes.

“You know we have so many political problems in this small country, but now, everyone understands … it is not the right time.” Instead, he says, people should be focused on supporting the efforts to get the captives out of Gaza.

At the anti-Netanyahu protest, Gideon Avaltal Eppstein, a straight-talking historian and veteran of the 1973 October War, known as the Yom Kippur War in Israel, shouts into a megaphone at passing traffic, “Bibi is destroying us!”

A delivery man on a moped pulls up beside him and says, “I am with you, but now is not the time.”

It is something Gideon says he hears often. “A lot of people say to us, ‘Now is not the time.’ People throw eggs and tomatoes at us.”

Despite this, he stands every day to protest against not just the government but also against its decision to launch a military operation in Gaza. He says he does not agree with the plan to “re-conquer the Gaza Strip”.

“Thousands of civilians and Israeli soldiers will be killed.”

(The article includes reporting from Jerusalem, Ashkelon, Baka el-Garbiya and other cities in Israel)

*Danielle’s name was changed at her request to protect her identity amid Israel’s internal political tensions

Source: Al Jazeera

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