Once tranquil Tel Aviv takes up arms as Gaza war rages

By Matthew Knott and Kate Geraghty

Almog Meirov attends a shooting range on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. The Israeli government has relaxed gun laws to allow citizens to carry a weapon if they have done military service and passed a medical and practical tests.Credit: Kate Geraghty

Save articles for later

Add articles to your saved list and come back to them any time.

Tel Aviv/ Jerusalem: Ben Avivi likes to joke that before October 7, a man only needed two things to be happy in Tel Aviv: a girlfriend and a dog. The 37-year-old Israeli, who works in marketing, lives just a few minutes’ walk away from the beach in Israel’s most secular, hedonistic city. Carrying himself with the laid-back air of a Bondi surfer, he says: “I’m a normal person who loves life”. When Hamas terrorists stormed across the border in Gaza, murdering 1400 Israelis, he was on holiday in Crete and struggled to believe the images of horror flooding his social media feeds. Rushing back to Israel, he did something he never imagined he would feel the need to do: buy a handgun.

Israelis in other parts of the country used to chide Tel Avivians, with their hip boutiques and cafes, for living in a bubble of naive tranquillity. That bubble has now exploded, with residents instructed most days to seek shelter in emergency rooms as air raid sirens sound. The country’s Iron Dome air defence system prevents most, but not all, rockets from getting through: a Hamas rocket directly hit a Tel Aviv apartment in late October, injuring three people.

Tel Aviv resident Ben Avivi bought a gun for self-defence after the October 7 Hamas attack he felt unsafe.Credit: Kate Geraghty

“We want to feel safe, but that word is out of the dictionary for us now,” Avivi says. “It’s an illusion to feel safe.” The thought that keeps replaying in his head is what he would do if a Hamas terrorist emerged from the sewers of Tel Aviv and threatened to rape or behead his girlfriend or mother. Determined that the scenes of horror that befell southern Israel never happen in the city, he and a group of about 50 neighbours have armed themselves and formed a local civilian emergency squad to respond to any terrorist attacks. It’s a sign of the community spirit that has taken hold in wartime Israel, but also the lack of trust citizens feel in the government’s ability to protect them following the massive intelligence failure of October 7.

In the weeks following the attacks, more than 100,000 Israelis filed requests to obtain gun licences – the equivalent of two years of requests before the war. On October 8, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir announced an emergency declaration to soften firearms regulations to “allow as many citizens as possible to arm themselves”. Ben-Gvir has implored Israelis, especially women, to arm themselves and has toured the country handing out guns to local community security squads. This has alarmed the Biden administration, which threatened to halt gun shipments to Israel if the weapons were used to arm civilians.

Israel Defence Force (IDF) reservists with Adam Lavie’s tank unit have a day of recreation in Tel Aviv before deployment. Credit: Kate Geraghty

Standing outside a shooting range in Herzliya on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, army reservist Adam Lavie and his fellow soldiers are enjoying a rare day off by playing paintball. They are members of a tank brigade and have been intensely preparing to join the ground assault in Gaza. “When I get home the first thing I will do is get a gun and join the local neighbourhood watch,” the engineer, 34, says. “There is no hesitation.” Inside the shooting range, locals are completing their firearm exams by firing at cardboard cutouts of Hamas terrorists holding Israelis hostage.

“Each person wants to defend their own home and their own neighbourhood,” Maya Carmel, who works in real estate and has two children, explains over coffee. A political progressive who decries the epidemic of mass shootings in the United States, she says she would “absolutely” like to arm herself with an M-16 but thinks there is still too much bureaucracy involved in obtaining a weapon. “I don’t like guns but Israel after October 7 is not like Israel before,” she says. “I’m scared for my children’s lives.”

Almog Meirov attends a shooting range on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. The Israeli government has relaxed gun laws to allow citizens to carry a weapon if they have done military service and passed a medical and practical tests. Credit: Kate Geraghty

In the months leading up to the Hamas attacks, Carmel was one of the millions of Israelis who took to the streets to protest against the Netanyahu government’s moves to weaken the power of the judiciary. Those demonstrations are now halted indefinitely, and the energy that powered them has been diverted to the war effort. At a makeshift “war room” in a Tel Aviv convention centre, Carmel and hundreds of fellow protesters have been making up to 4000 kosher meals a week to feed their nation’s troops and fellow citizens in border communities who have been evacuated from their homes. “I don’t believe in our government, but I believe in our people,” she says.

Just months ago, reservists in key military units were threatening not to show up for duty if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pushed ahead with his judicial overhaul. After October 7, Israelis have put politics aside and rushed to join the war effort. Some 360,000 reservists have answered the call to fight. War is deadly but galvanising too. “I feel confident, I feel we’re strong and will be successful,” reservist Yosef Bismuth, 20, says at a roadstop in northern Israel. “My family is afraid but this is my job, I have to do it.” The atmosphere is almost festive, with ultra-orthodox Jews blasting music on speakers and cafes handing out free iced coffees for the troops.

Israeli MP Sharren Haskel, a member of the Defence and Foreign Affairs Committee and former Sydney resident.Credit: Kate Geraghty

Sharren Haskel, a member of parliament, the Knesset, explains: “Since the attack everything has been set aside because we are in survival mode…We are united together in this idea of making sure our people are safe, our values are safe, our democracy is safe, our liberties and the sanctity of our life is safe.” Haskel quit Netanyahu’s Likud party in 2020 because of political differences and strongly opposed his judicial overhaul. Those differences – which seemed so important until recently – have now been sidelined and her party, National Unity, has joined Netanyahu’s emergency war cabinet.

The war with Hamas, Haskel says, “is going to determine whether we are capable of living here in our home, whether we are capable of sending our children to schools, and everything is put to the side. Any decision Netanyahu will take in a time of war – no matter how fierce, how powerful, how aggressive – we will support it.”

There is often a flip side, however, to the sense of unity that develops in times of national crisis: an intolerance for dissent.

Assumptions and arrests

On October 18, Jack Greenfeld was relaxing at home, at his flat in Jerusalem, when he heard an angry crowd assembling on the street below. Soon, a police officer barged into the pro-Palestinian activist’s house and took him to the police station. The reason was a sign on display on the balcony of Greenfeld’s flatmate saying: “No holiness in an occupied city”. Two small Palestinian flags, barely visible from the street, also stood in the pot plant on Greenfeld’s balcony. Greenfeld, who is trans, was not charged with any offence, but days later still sounds shaken by the arrest.

Israel and its supporters proudly describe it as the only functioning democracy in the Middle East – a nation with fair elections, vigorous political debate and a culture of lively protests. With the nation now at war, that reputation is coming under intense strain. A kindergarten teacher in Harish, near Haifa in northern Israel, was arrested and jeered as a traitor on October 30 for a five-year-old Facebook photo that showed her holding a Palestinian flag. Journalist Israel Frey, who is left-wing and ultra-Orthodox, was forced to flee his Tel Aviv home after an angry mob gathered outside chanting death threats. His offence: reciting the Kaddish, a Jewish prayer of mourning, for the victims of the war, including women and children in Gaza whom he claimed had been “slaughtered”. Israeli police arrested popular Palestinian singer Dalal Abu Amneh for “incitement” after she posted a Palestinian flag on Facebook with the caption: “There is no victor but Allah”.

Police commissioner Kobi Shabtai has said there will be “zero tolerance” for protests supporting Gaza: “Anyone who wants to identify with Gaza is welcome, I will put them on buses now that are headed there, and I will help him get there”.

Dr Abed Samara at home in Tira, Israel. He was suspended from his job at a hospital after a colleague complained about a 2022 Facebook post.Credit: Kate Geraghty

Sitting at his home in Tira, an Arab city in central Israel, cardiologist Abed Samara says he would rather be working at the nearby Hasahron Hospital, where he runs the intensive care ward. On the same day as police stormed into Greenfeld’s Jerusalem home, Samara received a letter saying he had been dismissed from his job and was under investigation. The letter informed him he had made statements “that amount to support and identification with a terrorist organisation”, adding that a complaint had been filed with police.

The reason, he discovered, was a June 2022 Facebook post showing a dove carrying an olive twig and a green flag emblazoned with the shahada, the Muslim declaration of faith: “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet”. Hospital staff had mistakenly believed it was a Hamas flag, and interpreted declarations of faith on his page as a sign of support for the terrorist group. “It’s a message of peace, it has nothing to do with Hamas,” he says, shaking his head. It upsets him that, despite being a senior and respected doctor at the hospital, none of his colleagues bothered to check the meaning of the post with him.

Arab Israelis – or Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, as some prefer to be called – like Samara form 20 per cent of Israel’s population. He says the October 7 attacks, and the war with Hamas, have heightened existing tensions between the Jewish majority and Muslim minority. “You feel like you are excluded from the Israeli community, even though we are paying taxes and providing services to the state of Israel.” Samara is fighting to get his job back, plus an official acknowledgement he did nothing wrong. He concedes it will be hard to return to work for managers who were so quick to assume he was a terrorist sympathiser. “There is a deep fracture in our relationship,” he says.

Still, he has no intention of leaving Israel. “I belong to my community and want to serve my community,” he says. “I don’t want to escape from reality. If there’s something wrong here you have to stay and fix it.”

Get a note directly from our foreign correspondents on what’s making headlines around the world. Sign up for our weekly What in the World newsletter.

Most Viewed in World

Source: Read Full Article