Six months on, the catastrophe of October 7th is still unfolding

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by Nic Robertson

Six months ago, I found myself couching on the runway at Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport, the air heavy with the noise of explosions and air raid sirens. Hamas’ shocking, unprecedented attack on Israel was still under way, and I had just arrived in the country to report on it.

Even then it was clear that this was the beginning of a new and brutal chapter in this most insoluble of conflicts, but few could have predicted the hellish scale of the story that would unfold.

Around five per cent of Gaza’s 2.1 million people are dead or injured, one-third of their homes lay in ruins, and vast numbers of those left behind face starvation. The Israel Defense Forces’ bombs and rockets, many supplied by international partners, pound homes, hospitals, and Hamas’ tunnels unrelentingly. A weeklong truce that felt like a breakthrough just over four months ago now feels like the briefest of pauses.

While Gazans suffer profoundly, Israelis are traumatised in a different way. Their country, divided even before 7 October, is now increasingly alienated from its allies abroad and riven over Israel’s identity. 

What’s more, rather than being on the back foot, Hamas seems instead to be providing an object lesson in resilience. It is still fighting in Gaza and still firing rockets into Israel, albeit far fewer than the 5 000 in its opening salvo six months ago. Of the 240 hostages snatched that day almost half remain held, much to the increasing despair and anger of their families and the Israeli public, their clouded fate supplying cruel leverage to their captors.

What many Israelis are struggling to understand is how the world appears to be turning its back on them. International journalists remain unable to access Gaza independently, but the pictures that do make it out tell a story not of a war on terror, that Israel’s PM Benjamin Netanyahu says they are fighting on behalf of the rest of the world, but rather one of lopsided, heart-breaking devastation. The world is transfixed, aghast at how Israel is using its might.

I have reported from many conflict zones in my career, but on my first trip into Gaza about four weeks into the war, I saw destruction on a scale I have never witnessed before – a dystopian urban wasteland of crushed dreams and shattered concrete. Over time, as aid to those displaced by the IDF’s relentless campaign continues to enter the enclave at a woefully inadequate trickle, it is the plight of ordinary Gazans that has become the story of the conflict, rather than that of the hostages, those murdered on 7 October, or their anguished loved ones.

7 October saw an outpouring of sympathy for Israel and its people, even if many feared what might follow. But rather than grow this goodwill, it is difficult to escape the notion that Israel, more specifically its government, has instead squandered it.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s return to power at the head of a right-wing coalition was turbulent and controversial even before 7 October, but now the blame for both the attacks themselves and Israel’s bitterly controversial response to them is being placed squarely on his shoulders. Even this most durable of politicians is struggling to turn the tide of public opinion that wants him gone.

Worse still, American support, the holy grail for generations of Israeli leaders, is evaporating. Back in March, Israeli War Cabinet Minister Benny Gantz was reportedly surprised by the harsh reception he received on a visit to Washington. When US House Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who described himself as a lifelong supporter of Israel, called Netanyahu “an obstacle to peace”, American frustration with his apparent obduracy was even clearer.

But recently that vital relationship hit a fresh low after the IDF’s attack on a convoy of World Central Kitchen aid workers. In a tense, frank call, President Joe Biden gave Netanyahu the starkest warning yet that US aid to Israel is not guaranteed. Netanyahu had previously said the aid workers’ deaths were “unfortunate” and “what happens in war”; but Biden instead described the incident as “unacceptable” and demanded “changes”. After months of increasing irritation, push appears to be coming to shove.

Netanyahu’s last bastion of international protection is softening, the air is escaping his political life even as he refuses to accept it. 

The question for Israel now is “where does this end?” Rather than foster the long-term security so many of its people crave, it is instead being crushed by its own strength and jeopardising its most important relationships. If the ultimate goal is peace, what does that look like?

Senator Lindsey Graham believes an end to the Arab Israeli conflict is “the big prize”. “That’s a blow to Hamas and Iran,” he said in a telephone call with CNN. “The war with Hamas has to be looked at through the prism of the bigger deal. I know Israel has to destroy Hamas, but operations in Rafah and in general – you have to look at how these operations affect the overall deal, which is normalisation,” he continued.

Normalisation feels like a parable from a parallel universe right now. US support of Israel has damaged its credibility in the region and caused political strife for its leaders at home in an election year. US interlocutors’ shuttle diplomacy has yielded few tangible results and heightened frustration among those in the region yearning for a ceasefire and a path to some sort of stability. With the conflict spilling into neighbouring countries like Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen, simply keeping it contained is enough of a challenge.

Diplomats I speak to within the region are pragmatic about relations with Israel, but in moments of frustration fear, Netanyahu and his cabinet want Gaza emptied of Palestinians and wonder who can emerge from Israel’s riven, traumatised body politic strong enough to press for an independent Palestinian state, the long hypothesised two-state peace solution.

Netanyahu appears to have led his country to a crossroads. He shows no sign of changing course, and putative regional partners who always doubted he could deliver peace now interpret the past six months as proof he never wanted a two-state solution to begin with. Of course, Hamas does not appear to want that either, and while their disregard for the wellbeing of their own people may yet see them pay a price in their own constituency, it is hard to imagine that Israel’s response to 7 October will not have created a new, angry and radicalised generation of Palestinians who will view Israel as an irredeemable enemy.

Indeed, as international pressure grows on Netanyahu, so Hamas seems to be emboldened, hardening its hostage negotiating, digging in on demands for a complete ceasefire and that a high number of Palestinian prisoners be released following the US abstention at the UN Security Council, which allowed a resolution calling for a ceasefire to pass. Netanyahu may have the measure of his enemy, but he is losing the backing and running out of time to defeat them.

Past conflicts between these foes have followed a pattern of sorts. Palestinian attacks would be met by massive but relatively brief Israeli retaliation, and international pressure would force a pause. This is something on a completely different scale, with consequences to match: a conflict so saturated in suffering that it threatens to be a badge of shame for generations to come.

If the Americans cannot stop the Israelis, and the Arabs cannot force Hamas to return the hostages, perhaps the greatest hope of an end to this conflict lies in Israel itself. Ask many there for their views on the conflict and they will often reply, “Balagan”. It is a Hebrew word for “a mess”. 

“We don’t know what to think, we don’t know what is going to happen”, one Israeli told me. “It might look obvious from the outside, but here people can’t go back to their homes in the north, a relative just lost her house there to a Hezbollah attack”.

And then there is Hamas: “They still fire rockets from Gaza”, he said, waving his hands in the air in disbelief, “how is this possible?”. “The army says, ‘we take this, we do this’.” His frustration is typical of many here, and it is beginning to boil over.

The abject misery of life in Gaza may not be felt by many in Israel, where a twisted sort of normality is holding, but a different kind of suffering is palpable. This is a country on edge. Stabbings, gun and ramming attacks are more frequent than before 7 October. Ordinary people are looking to the future with trepidation. Where will the tourists come from? Who will trade with their businesses? What future does this country offer their children? What of the more than 90 000 Israelis still displaced from their homes near the northern border with Lebanon? 

All these questions are increasingly being directed at Netanyahu and his coalition. In the decades-long conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, answers have never been in plentiful supply, but right now they have never felt more distant. The only certainty is that the attacks of 7 October were just the beginning of a fresh catastrophe for Israelis and Gazans alike, and we will not know its full extent for many years to come.  

Nic Robertson is an International Diplomatic Editor, CNN

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