From Tel Aviv to Haifa: ‘Do you believe this is the end of Israel?’

After six months of war in Gaza, Israeli opinion is wracked with fear, wondering about what comes next in a country where the messianic far right is agitating in favour of ethnic cleansing. As for the left, it is hard-pressed to find its way, while the public freedoms of Israeli Palestinians are subjected to severe restrictions.

1st April 2024. Israeli demonstrators wave flags during a four-day sit-in near Parliament in Jerusalem, calling for the dissolution of the government and the return of Israelis held hostage in Gaza since 7 October.
Jean Stern

From our special correspondent in Israel.

On the beaches of Tel Aviv, it is a radiant Saturday afternoon, and the urban family tribes are taking advantage of the sunshine. Picnics, music, and beer. Gaza is 70 kilometres away. The reservists’ rifles, to be seen here and there, attest to that. Sitting a bit apart from the crowd, on a stone breakwater, a weather-faced man is smoking a cigarette. Maki was from Leningrad, emigrated to Israel in 1997 and fought in the Lebanese war in 2006. At 54, he works in a dry-cleaner. I question him about the situation in Israel. He looks me over and answers: ‘a shithole country’.

The day before, in a trendy Tel Aviv restaurant, I came upon Hanna, 27. She was born in Saint Petersburg when it was no longer called Leningrad. She came here two years ago to escape Putin’s Russia and his filthy war in Ukraine. The tragic irony of her flight makes me crack a smile. Hanna says exactly the same thing as Moki, and she plans to move on. Nor will she be alone: a high-ranking European diplomat tells me, off the record, that the requests for passports in Western consulates have been multiplied by five since the same time last year. Five million Israeli i.e. half the population, already have a second passport.

‘Shit-hole country’ is also what Gabriella says whom I met in the village of tents in Jerusalem, on the boulevard between the Knesset and the Supreme Court. Volunteers hand out camping mattresses and pillows to make the activists’ stint on the pavement a bit more comfortable. Gabriella demonstrated several months in 2023 to defend that bloody Supreme Court, near-sighted watchdog over a democracy that tolerates so much discrimination against Palestinians. She is very angry with this ‘government of losers’ incapable of freeing the hostages and winning ‘that horrible war’ they started. ‘Let them get the hell out!’ shouts Mariana. ‘They’re pathetic! This war is leading us nowhere!’ ‘They’re slackers,’ another demonstrator sighs by the Knesset on 4 April as General Ian Golan is ending his inflammatory speech. ‘A bunch of useless men wrapped up in their messianism,’ Nizan Horrowitz adds. A former leader of Meretz, a left-wing Zionist party on the skids, he was once Minister of Health. ‘This government is such a failure that the only way it can save itself is by overacting its rage,’ observes a European diplomat, who deplores the ‘terribly misguided methods’ used by Benyamin Netanyahu and his cabinet.

‘Away with him! Away with all of them’

After six months of war, Netanyahu is hated the way no other ruler has ever Ben hated in Israel. Israelis were outraged to learn that his con Yair is safely ensconced in Miami, protected by two Mossad agents, while his wife Sara has had a hairdressing salon installed in her official residence so as not to confront the angry crowd in front of her favourite address in Tel Aviv. ‘The only ideas Netanyahu has left are to save his wife, his son and his bank account,’ says Nitzan Horrowitz. People say, ‘OK, we forget about the indictments but just so he gets out, so they all get out!’

‘Shit-hole country,’ a Palestinian inhabitant of Haifa repeats. Like many others, he is afraid to demonstrate his solidarity with Gaza for fear of seeing his life smashed by the repression. Israeli Jews can exhibit their rage while the Palestinian citizens of Israel are confined to silence. A boulevard for the ones, a truncheon for the others. ‘Shit-hole country!’ Ruchama Marton, 86, is amused by the triviality of the expression. She is a major figure of the Israeli left. Knee-high to a grasshopper with a mischievous glint in her eye, she Founded Physicians for Human Rights and at the beginning of April published on the front page of Haaretz a list of 470 health workers killed in Gaza since the start of the Israeli offensive. She understood the nature of Israel as early as 1956. At 20, Ruchama Marton served in the Sinai. She saw soldiers of the Givati brigade execute Egyptian prisoners quite unceremoniously with a bullet in the head.

So all this comes from way back.

Samson, Israel’s national religious hero, was a ‘fanatical egotist’ who had ‘a need to humiliate’, says Yoav Rinon, a professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. That emblematic figure of the messianic Zionists who co-govern Israel right now, believed that his strength made him invincible; this myth, rehashed incessantly in the school-books of the propagandists, is on its way out. Yoav Roman is a wise scholar and he believes it is time.

to move on from a concept based on murder and suicide to one based on the drive of life. The notion of sharing must be based on giving up the idea of having an exclusive right to this land. It has to become a space of life and not a space of Judeo- Palestinian death.1

A fine pious wish, but for the moment ‘The Israeli have devastated Gaza out of rage, not by necessity’, a diplomat resumes and ‘anything can happen yet’. ‘Netanyahu keeps promising Israelis “total victory” but the truth is that we are on the verge of a total defeat’ liberal historian Yuval Noal Harari points out.2. In his view the Prime Minister has shown proof of ‘pride, blindness, and vengefulness’, just like Samson.

Yet to speak of that ‘vainglorious hero’ illustrates something obvious, says Hariri: this county’s present model, based on violence and domination, has outlived its usefulness. Everybody talks about this, in private, in their family, with a visiting friend. The Israeli left, split over the colonial issue – and this dates from long before 7 October – also must reinvent itself, at a time when the government is waging total war against the Gaza Palestinians, is harassing them in the occupied territories, threatening the few freedoms they have left – and by rebound those of every citizen – within the country’s 1948 boundaries.

‘Do you think it’s the end of Israel?’By a surprising mirror effect, this is the question most people here ask aloud. Jews, Christians, or Muslims, religious or not, they ask it as much for themselves as for the benefit of the visiting journalist. And they are all people who wanted peace, imagined a common future.

‘We’ve already known bad days in the past, bombings, demonstrations where there were fifty of us. But now … it’s hard to talk,’ a Tel Aviv architect says to me. ‘Everybody is in a bad way, everyone is feeling sick, even people who claim to be OK’, says a woman I know in Jerusalem. Many are frightened too, and this throws a kind of grey veil over the whole country. People don’t talk about that fear much, some even say ‘They are proud to be Israelis again,’ yet they all share that final curtain anxiety.

Orly Noy focuses her action on getting out of this lethal dead end. Born in Iran, she is a journalist and translator and at 54 she has just become president of B’Tselem, the most powerful human rights NGO in Israel which has evolved enormously over the past ten years in its characterisation of Israeli apartheid. This experienced activist’s sharp eye has contributed to the success of the on-line magazine +972, responsible for the terrifying revelations on the way the army uses artificial intelligence in Gaza.3 She has it in for ‘the disenchanted, the disillusioned, people who have seen it all’ those self-styled lefties who support the war. Like those singers and actors who send love letters to the soldiers and organise tours on the front. Orly Noy speaks ironically of ‘their outdated leftist illusions’ while others accuse her of an alleged indulgence for Hamas.4 For her, ‘the hateful’ and ‘unjustifiable crime’ committed on 7 October cannot wipe away ‘the years of occupation, lockdown, humiliation and cruel oppression of the Palestinians, everywhere and above all in Gaza.’ Orly Noy’s position caused a few members to leave B’Tselem, but she refused to renounce her solidarity with the Palestinians being massacred in Gaza. ‘There are left-wing intellectuals who say they want to save the Palestinians from their sufferings under Hamas. But then why impose more sufferings on them?’ as a Palestinian observer sums up the ongoing debates meant to reinvent the Israeli left.

April 2024. On Dizengoff Square in the centre of Tel Aviv, where people meet to pay tribute to the Israeli hostages kidnapped on 7 October.
April 2024. On Dizengoff Square in the centre of Tel Aviv, where people meet to pay tribute to the Israeli hostages kidnapped on 7 October.
Jean Stern

“Generals are the bane of Israel”

As for General Yair Golan, he wants to give a more classical left a new lease on life, since he is thinking of becoming head of Havoda, the labour party, currently in a bad way with only 4 MPs. Formerly deputy chief of staff, he ‘is like all those generals. When they leave the army, they start talking about peace, because they know it’s impossible to win the war’ is the verdict of a female academic I met. A Meretz MP and minister between 2020 and 2022, the General became a national hero on 7 October by going twice, all by himself, to the place where that rave party was held to save endangered guests. In his opinion, ‘we have to make a radical change, of course, because it’s impossible to destroy Hamas. Israel has no notion of how to pursue this war and move forward politically: it’s a scandal.’ While General Golan’s candidacy for the leadership of a future left-wing coalition is viewed favourably by the demonstrators in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, it meets with considerable resistance. ‘The generals are the plague of Israel’, says a woman who used to belong to Meretz. What’s more, ‘the Zionist left may not like Netanyahu but they appreciate his policies. They approved of the Nakba in 1948 and then the de facto apartheid, the colonisation and now the genocide,’ Jamal Jahalka adds. He is a former Balad MP5, who has a thorough knowledge of ‘that particular left’ because he sat next to them for years in the Knesset.

Yael Berda has no intention of sitting on the fence like the Zionist left. She’s an anthropologist and an academic with very firm convictions, a rare instance in Tel Aviv. ‘I’m on the left and I support the rights of Palestinians, I’m against the occupation and the colonial State. But I don’t understand people who can’t manage to say October 7 was a horror. I can’t accept that.’ For Yael Berda, today’s war is the worst possible solution. ‘We have to give ourselves time to talk, when we spend all our time demanding of the Palestinians to justify themselves and then to defend themselves.’ He is an academic and he thinks that the arbitrariness that has prevailed for too long must stop and that a new model has to be invented for the country. ‘There can’t be a country where millions of people have no rights. So, we have to give the Palestinians rights.’

For Berda, bringing the Palestinians back to the centre of the game is what is most at stake for the Israeli left, even if there is no sign of a change of curse within the next few months. Despite the street protests which have become stronger since mid-March, the Israeli left does not possess a clear program, in particular regarding peace, completely forgotten today in a country immersed in war. The Prime Minister has a solid majority of 64 seats. In spite of the wrangling with the far right over the dimensions of the Gaza offensive and with the religious parties over the extension of military service to ultra-orthodox youths, Netanyahu has his majority in hand. It’s true that at the beginning of April, before the Iranian aerial attack, his popularity had fallen to 30%. This said, with the official opposition in the person of a Benny Gantz sitting on the war cabinet and a Yair Lapid supporting the war, Netanyahu has nothing to worry about. ‘Gantz and Netanyahu, frankly, they’re much of a muchness,’ a diplomat observes. The left has also abandoned another front, even more insidious, opened by the government: the infringement on individual freedom, especially for the Palestinian citizens of Israel. ‘The weeds’ as they call them, are often treated like a fifth column. Preventive arrests, public accusations, unjustified indictments… A whole freedom-destroying arsenal has been put in place.

‘Punish the Palestinians for being Palestinians’

First in line are the media: ‘The Israeli media are like an orchestra where the musicians all play the same instrument’, Ari explains. He oversees communication for Adalah, an NGO that defends the rights of Palestinians. ‘There are almost never any Palestinians on TV. The mainstream media and even the liberal ones support the government’s war and its crimes.’ Many people, Palestinians as well as Israelis, feel the need to watch Al-Jazira to get a different side of the news. But the government has passed a law aimed at banning the Qatari channel. ‘The brutality is shocking, but what is even more shocking is the way the Israeli media support that brutality and sell us its Israeli heros,’ Jamal Zahalka goes on. ‘Most people don’t know what’s happening to freedom of speech, or else they don’t give a damn.’

For example, the media take part in the public accusation of innocent people, as if that helped to defend Israel humiliated since 7 October; death to Palestinians’ freedom of speech and that of their rare supporters, the hour of revenge has come for the regime and the compliant media. ‘It’s as if the most urgent thing was to punish the Palestinians for being Palestinians,’ an attorney says to me. Punishing and humiliation are bases for the ‘dehumanising’ of Palestinians. As if, over and beyond the macabre list of victims in Gaza, mourned by many Israeli Palestinians because they remember them as relatives despite the exile and the colonisation. Millions of individuals no longer have thoughts of their own, the right to be anything but a threat. Neither the right to protest against the Gaza offensive, nor to mourn their dead. Defence Minister Yoav Gallant used the word ‘animals’ to describe them. To prevent any protests, there has been a brutal clampdown on colleges and universities. This worries Adi Mansur, legal advisor to the NGO Adala, based in Haifa:

The freedoms of Israeli Palestinians are at risk, any criticism is seen as a manifestation of treachery and the criminalisation of the social media and other channels of expression is under way. This criminalisation of free speech is unprecedented in our country.

‘It’s enough to express sympathy for the Gazins to be suspected of sympathy for terrorism.’ Over 95 students and 25 colleges have been indicted; half of them were liberated but that doesn’t make it a victory for us’. He tells me that criminal procedures are being used to punish alleged crimes of opinion in this time of war. People are being punished for what they think. Certain accusations are frankly ludicrous. A female student who had posted, a few days after 7 October, a picture of Champagne and balloons for a private event, was accused of celebrating Hamas and terrorism.

The harassment of Palestinian students in Israel

Since the beginning of the war, 124 students and 36 universities and colleges in Israel have contacted Adalah to get legal help in connection with complaints lodged against them regarding their activity on the social networks. Ninety-five of them have actually been helped by the NGO, which supplied these up-to-date figures especially for OrientXXI on 12 April 2024. Three remarks: the majority of these students are women, there have been many suspensions and these seriously jeopardise their educational future.

Their attorney had this to add: ‘What is at stake here are the principles of academic freedom and students’ rights. Who can decide what a person has the right to say in the academic sphere?’

The government is putting pressure on university and college professors to make sure of students’ ‘loyalty’. The Minister of Interior Affairs is trying to impose norms on the social networks. Legal procedures are made to serve political propaganda. An Israeli professor at Ben-Gurion University in the Negev says he is ‘worried about public liberties and academic freedom, because the general climate is not favourable to discussion.’ He thinks his wisest option is to advise his students to keep their mouths shut, at least on the social networks, even if their opinions on the situation in Gaza have nothing to do with their university curriculum. One of his colleagues at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Nadera Chalhoub-Kevorkian, has just spent 24 hours in remand after being fired from his university for having criticised the war in Gaza.

Censorship, arrests, threats, ‘the authorities are going crazy over solidarity with Gaza. We only have small demonstrations, people are afraid of getting shot at,’ says Majd Kayyal, a Haifa writer who runs the website Gaza Passages, devoted to texts by Gaza authors of both sexes and published in a dozen languages.

‘The problem is our country’

For Adi Mansur, the main thing is to keep people from putting into words what they are, i.e. Palestinians: ‘All of this serves to muzzle Palestinian society. Every Arab should feel free and safe in Israel. This is becoming less true by the day and it’s another challenge for the Israeli left: not to let personal freedom go down the drain.

Considering the monstrous toll of a war of which no one can see an end in sight – over 35,000 dead, at least fifty billion dollars of destruction in Gaza – considering that this genocidal offensive gives no signs of stopping, the future is bleak.

A female activist in Tel Aviv:

What we have known and accepted for so many years, even if we disagreed, has percolated into the whole population. Racism, the general idea of “getting rid of the Arabs” is dragging us towards our own possible disappearance.

“We may well ask ourselves whether the end of Israel is a question of time or a question of backing,” a Nablus intellectual wonders. The end of Israel? “It’s the end of a model, there’s no doubt about that, but not the end of a country”, qualifies a diplomat. “What’s going to happen on the day after?” demonstrators in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem were asking the question on 1 April. “The problem is neither the right nor the left, it’s our country,” Gabrielle told me in Jerusalem, demanding an international police force in Gaza and the end of the occupation in the West Bank. “This can’t last any longer! They’ve got to have a country! she adds. ‘We need to have courage and lucidity’,” General Golan sighs, adding that this government has neither.

1 April 2024. In Jerusalem's tent village, where Israeli demonstrators staged a four-day sit-in by the Knesset calling for the resignation of the government and the return of the Israeli hostages held in Gaza since 7 October.
1 April 2024. In Jerusalem’s tent village, where Israeli demonstrators staged a four-day sit-in by the Knesset calling for the resignation of the government and the return of the Israeli hostages held in Gaza since 7 October.
Jean Stern

In the meantime, for a Palestinian intellectual in Haifa

we’re two hours away from Gaza, and everything seems perfectly normal. I find it crazy that Israel manages to create two different realities, here and in Gaza, in Jerusalem and in the Territories. I follow very closely everything that’s going on in Gaza, I think about it all the time, and it drives me mad, a genocide is happening there and nobody is doing anything to stop it.

My last evening on a half-empty Dizengoff terrace at the centre of Tel Aviv. Seven bawdies are sitting around a table, boozing, and bawling. At least two of them are armed, revolvers tucked under their belts in the small of their backs. A gentle scent of jasmine is wafted up from the gardens, it’s Springtime in the Middle East. The city is very calm. One of the men sitting at the table asks me, in a rather aggressive tone, where I’m from. And the inevitable question: what do I think of the war? But seeming to read my mind and without waiting for my answer: “You’ve got to trust us… Otherwise the country is finished.” Clearly, the subject is on the table.

Jamal Zabalka: “Everybody or almost thinks the same way: Kill ’em off! Destroy them!”

A one-time leader of Balad and MP on the United Arab List, Jamal Zabalka is a key member of the Arab left in Israel. At 69, he comments on the situation for Orient XXI.

Here we are directly faced with Israeli civilians, Israeli politicians, Israeli intellectuals. All of them, or almost, think the same way: “Kille ’em off! Destroy them!” What is at issue is the very brutality of Zionism itself. Take an Israeli pilot. He climbs into his jet fighter, presses a button, kills a hundred people, then he goes home and listens to a Beethoven symphony while reading Kafka. The distance between victim and killer makes the war seems cleaner to them.

Palestinians who live in Israel have a hard time talking at first because they see what’s going on in Gaza every day. But they have mixed feelings because Israel hasn’t won a victory in Gaza. Even if the Palestinians feel they’ve been abandoned, the demonstrations of solidarity pretty much everywhere in the world has warmed their hearts. People understand that discrimination, apartheid, colonisation, are all the same thing. Most of them have understood too that Israel has its dark side.

Nobody on the Israeli political scene is ready to compromise. The Americans aren’t going to budge, the Europeans are incapable of doing so, the Russians and the Chinese are watching. The situation is very volatile. Hamas doesn’t want to give up Gaza and the Palestine Authority can’t do anything in Gaza without Hamas’ approval. There would have to be a government of technocrats and negotiations because the key to everything is Palestinian unity. The real counterattack has to come from a unified Palestine.

An economy that is holding up

In a political, military, and moral context which is frankly chaotic, the economy is holding up. Four Government loans of 8 billion dollars each have been subscribed, but the war may cost Israel 14 points off its GNP, which is a lot. The building sector is far from flowing down, either in Tel Aviv or the colonies. The armament industry is running at top speed. Israel has also received tens of billions of US aid in the form of munitions and weaponry. And in credits: over 14 billion dollars just recently.

The high-tech sector was handicapped by this winter’s large mobilisation. It represents 10% of the country’s activity but 20% of its army reservists. However, it is so widely connected across the world that the country’s convulsions affect it very little. This very sensitive sector is at the forefront of the opposition to the regime. In fact, several high-tech companies are financing General Golan. As for the tourist trade, it is seriously endangered, especially because air travel has been drastically curtailed. In 2023, the sector represented an income for Israel of three billion dollars. Nobody knows yet, for example, whether Gay Pride will take place on 7 June in Tel Aviv as planned. As of now, all gatherings of more than 1,000 are banned in Israel.

  • Le harcèlement des étudiants palestiniens en Israël
    Depuis le début de la guerre, 124 étudiants de 36 universités et collèges israéliens ont contacté Adalah pour obtenir une aide juridique concernant les plaintes déposées contre eux pour leur activité sur les réseaux sociaux. 95 d’entre eux ont effectivement été assisté par l’ONG, qui a fourni ces données actualisées au 12 avril 2024 en exclusivité pour Orient XXI. Trois observations : ce sont majoritairement des étudiantes qui sont mises en cause, les suspensions sont très nombreuses et pénalisent gravement la poursuite des études pour ces personnes.

1Yoav Rinon, ‘The Destructive Wish for Revenge Followed by Suicide Is Rooted in the Israeli Ethos’, Haaretz, 16 March 2024.

2Yuval Noal Harari, ‘From Gaza to Iran, the Netanyahu government is endangering Israel’s survival’, Haaretz, 18 April 2024

3Yuval Abraham, ‘Lavender: the AI machine directing Israel’s bombing spree in Gaza’, +972, 3 April 2024.

4Orly Noy, ‘War on Gaza: How Israel’s leftists quickly lost their compassion for Palestinians’, Middle East Eye, 16 March 2024.

5Founded in 1995, Balad is a progressive Arab party, which also has Jewish members. It was one of the pillars of the United Arab List which won thirteen seats in the Knesset in 2015.