I am going to describe the images coming out of Israel over the last 12 hours. I don’t want to believe any of them are real, because they are horrifying, among the most gruesome scenes of mutilation, murder, and abduction imaginable. But there is now going to be a war between Israel and Hamas—and possibly a broader regional war. Israel will invade Gaza. As we speak, Israelis my age are being called up to war. Some of them are my friends.
Within two or three days, the media narrative will change, as it does every time, and the grisly invasion that started the war quickly will be minimized into a half sentence of euphemistic dishonesty in press accounts (“an incursion by Gaza-based militants”) so that the focus can turn to prosecuting Israel.
This is part of why everyone needs to know about the images—the ones you won’t see if you turn on MSNBC or the BBC today. Because so much of the media and Western foreign policy officialdom do not want to embarrass the Palestinians by showing the sadistic brutality of Hamas. They do not want to undermine the coming effort to pressure Israel to stop fighting. They do not want people to notice the Iranian role in the war and how it is fueled by an appallingly dangerous Biden administration policy toward the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism.
So that is why you need to know.
When Hamas invaded Israel this morning, terrorists streamed across the border in pickup trucks, by motorcycle, on foot, and even on paragliders. Once inside Israel, they abducted and murdered Israelis. They shot people in cars and at bus stops, they rounded up women and children into rooms like Einsatzgruppen—yes, the comparison is appropriate—and machine-gunned them. They went house to house to find and murder civilians hiding in their closets, and they dragged the bloody, dead bodies of Israelis back into Gaza where they are now being paraded, beaten, and mutilated in front of exultant crowds.
One young woman was murdered and stripped to her underwear, and her corpse was thrown in the back of a pickup truck so it could be paraded around Gaza while young Hamas men beat and mutilated her body.
Small Israeli towns and kibbutzim near the Gaza border were turned into scenes reminiscent of ISIS in Syria, with gangs of terrorists riding through the streets in pickup trucks shooting anything that moved. And then there are the Israelis who have been abducted and taken to Gaza as hostages. How many of them, dead and alive, are there? We don’t know, but if the number of appalling videos and heartbreaking social media posts from people looking for missing family members are anything to go by, the figure is without precedent in Israeli history.
These images and videos are repulsive. But they must be seen and understood to comprehend what is coming next.
I am now in Los Angeles, far away from Israel, but from 2006 to 2008 I lived in Jerusalem. My regular travel there in the years that followed overlapped with all the Gaza wars except the most recent one. I was there for the 2006 Lebanon war (much of which I spent with the IDF at the front in the North), for the first Gaza war in 2008, and then for the battles in 2012 and 2014. The memories of air raid sirens, hurrying into bomb shelters, and, when that got boring, watching from Tel Aviv rooftops as Iron Dome shot down rockets, are still vivid.
Today is Israel’s 9/11. It feels strange to say this about a country where terrorist attacks have been a regular feature of national life, and I’m conscious of the tendency to over-Americanize events in the Middle East, but it really is the right analogy.
Just as in pre-9/11 America, Israel has been consumed by domestic controversies while assuming the world beyond was, if not stable, at least predictable. Just as in the U.S., Israel has been caught completely by surprise. And, just as in America on 9/11, Israeli families are searching desperately for any news about their missing loved ones. But these are only the small similarities. The horror is highly cinematic. This is almost certainly the highest civilian casualty from a single attack in Israel’s history, just as 9/11 was for the U.S.
The meaningful similarity is the feeling of national humiliation, vulnerability, and fear provoked by the attack: the most powerful country in the Middle East, with an intelligence service that can assassinate Iranian nuclear scientists at will, with F-35s and spy satellites, was just bested by men who simply jogged across the border with rifles. Americans after 9/11 did not feel that their country was weak—we felt the bewilderment and rage of vulnerability despite our strength. This is what Israelis are feeling today.
I have been up all night on group chats with my old friends in Israel, most of them IDF veterans, and their mood is grim and outraged, with much of the anger directed toward their own leaders.
As the story evolved from rocket attacks to border incursion to invasion to hostage-taking to ISIS roaming the city of Sderot, we felt waves of the kind of disbelief mixed with horror I hadn’t felt since seeing the Twin Towers collapse live on television. The questions this attack poses are very simple: How could this happen? How did Israeli authorities fail so completely?
The result of this war will probably be legacy-defining for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He presided over several rounds of conflict with Hamas and was always reluctant to topple the group, kill its leaders, or get pulled into a prolonged stay in Gaza. Israel has now been dragged into Gaza, and it is indisputably due in part to strategic choices Netanyahu made in the past.
But the accounting of what went wrong will come later. Right now, there is a war to fight. While we don’t yet know the full scope of its objectives—overthrow Hamas and reoccupy Gaza? Disarm Hamas and leave? Bomb and fight for a few weeks and agree to another cease-fire?—no Israeli government that wants to stay in power can treat this like the past 15 years of Gaza conflicts.
There also needs to be an accounting here in America of our role in setting the table for this disaster. Today should mark the end of the Biden administration’s dishonorable effort to reenter the Iran nuclear deal and its string of disgraceful and one-sided concessions to Hamas’s biggest backer.
Biden gave Iran access to money, most recently $6 billion that had been frozen in South Korean banks. Since the administration came into office, it has been pouring money into Gaza aid projects knowing well that Iran’s client terrorist group, Hamas, is fully in control of the territory and would benefit from the help. In fact, Biden officials put in writing, in recently leaked documents, that they knew Hamas would benefit from the money they were sending. They sent it anyway.
This assault on Israel is in many ways more psychologically shocking than the Egyptian and Syrian surprise attack during Yom Kippur in 1973. Back then, the fighting was conventional and took place on Israel’s borders, far out on the Golan and in the Sinai. There were no Syrian and Egyptian terrorists machine-gunning civilians in the streets of Israeli cities or dragging bloodied women and children across the border.
This is why Israel’s response is likely to be very different than it has been in every previous round of fighting. For 15 years, Hamas has been well aware that Israeli strategy has not sought an end to its rule over Gaza. This is why we never saw the IDF raid the basement of Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, which functions as Hamas headquarters during conflict, and it’s why we’ve never seen Mossad assassinate Hamas leaders who live openly and in luxury in Doha as admired guests of Qatar’s government. This principle—keep Hamas in power so Israel doesn’t end up having to rule Gaza—which Israeli governments have always refrained from stating plainly, has been the defining feature of the conflict since 2008.
It is hard to see how Israelis will accept the continued presence of an Iranian terror group in Gaza. It is hard to see how Israel, or the region, goes back to normal. As on 9/11, today the world changed.
Noah Pollak is a Los Angeles-based political consultant. Follow him on X (né Twitter) @NoahPollak.
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