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Israeli peace activists struggle to get their voices heard

In Jewish tradition, the passage of 30 days — known as sheloshim — is a significant interval in rituals of mourning. Now, a month after the massacre that nearly brought the country to its knees, Israel’s battered “peace camp” is rising — or trying its best to do so.

The Israeli military is engaged in what its army chief of staff calls face-to-face battles with Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that slaughtered some 1,400 people in southern Israel on Oct. 7. The human cost in the Gaza Strip has been immense, surpassing 10,000 people killed, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry on Monday, mainly in Israel’s nearly nonstop bombardment of the narrow coastal enclave.

“This is a time of war,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu intoned last week, turning aside growing international appeals for a cease-fire or at least a “humanitarian pause” to allow aid into Gaza and buy time to free the hostages Hamas seized — 240 of them, by the latest Israeli count.

In a place where Old Testament-style language of vengeance reverberates in the electronic pings of news alerts, many Israelis readily subscribe to the notion that Hamas — whose surprise attack is marked here as causing the largest single-day loss of Jewish life since the Holocaust — must be eradicated by any means necessary.

But others see this as a moment to reflect on what this war will cost, and what will come after.

A man sitting, hands together, on a bench in a grassy area shaded by trees

“I’m not crying for my murdered parents,” Maoz Inon says. “I’m crying for those who are going to die in this war.”

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

“I’m not crying for my murdered parents,” said Maoz Inon, a 48-year-old Israeli peace activist whose mother and father were killed when militants invaded their small farming community four weeks ago. “I’m crying for those who are going to die in this war.”

The small subset of Israelis who have made it their full-time task to oppose Israel’s iron grip on the Palestinian territories realizes that after the shock of so many deaths inside Israel proper, this work has become far more difficult — but at the same time, they say, far more urgent.

That sense of exigency is honeycombed with grief. Many in the activist community are mourning personal losses from what has become known here as Black Saturday — killings or abductions that touched their closest circles of friendship, or their own families.

“At any given time, we’re not popular in Israel,” said Dror Sadot, a spokesperson for the Israeli nonprofit group B’Tselem, which documents human rights abuses in the occupied territories. “We’re working against mainstream opinion and against the government, and our positions are not welcome among the majority of the Jewish population in Israel.”

In the dark aftermath of Hamas’ rampage, she said, “some people are calling us traitors.”

Demonstrators in a city at night hold posters of loved ones with messages including "Kidnapped" and "Bring him home now!"

Demonstrators in Tel Aviv last month call for government help to free loved ones kidnapped by Hamas. Some Israelis’ qualms about their military’s ground assault on Gaza stem from concerns for the hostages’ safety rather than for civilians in Gaza.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

But Alon-Lee Green, national director of the grassroots group Standing Together, a Jewish-Arab peace coalition, said there was no contradiction between rights groups asserting that “millions of Palestinians are living without basic human or civil rights” and expressing utter horror over the Hamas attack, in which elderly people, infants and children were methodically cut down, their bodies burned and mutilated.

And he said it was imperative to question Israeli military aims.

“Direct and open calls for revenge, talk of taking Gaza back to the Stone Age — none of those things will bring anyone back to life, and will not bring Israeli hostages back to their families,” said Green.

“We have to ask the fundamental question,” he said. “Conquer Gaza, kill many, many innocent Palestinians … and then what?”

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When Bilhaa and Yaakov Inon told their adult children in a group WhatsApp channel on that warm Saturday morning that their small community was under rocket fire from the Gaza Strip, their son Maoz, who runs a chain of inns, was only slightly worried at first.

“It sounds weird to say, but it’s kind of a normal thing,” he recounted. “We knew they were in their safe room” — a small bomb shelter found on the premises of nearly every home in Netiv Haasara, which lies only a quarter-mile from the Gaza frontier.

But the news quickly turned ominous, then terrifying: The community, like a string of others, had been infiltrated, then overrun, by armed attackers. Neighbors sent frantic messages about injuries and deaths as would-be rescuers came under fire. The WhatsApp chat went silent.

A large pile of rubble next to a scarred yellow building with no roof and a large hole in one wall

The Beeri kibbutz was among the Israeli communities near Gaza devastated in the Oct. 7 Hamas assault and Israeli forces’ battle to regain control.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

It wasn’t until 5 p.m. that the family learned the worst from a community security officer: The home of Bilhaa, 75, and Yaakov, 78, who like many of their neighbors were longtime peace activists, had burned to the ground.

There were two bodies inside. Unlike some Israeli families who endured long waits for formal identification of loved ones’ remains before holding a funeral and embarking on ritual mourning, the Inon family began sitting shiva the very next day.

There won’t be a burial, Maoz Inon said. His parents had stated in their will that they wanted their ashes spread on the community’s farmlands — although now, with the Gaza perimeter part of the war zone, it’s not certain when anyone might till that soil again.

“I live by the values they taught us — that we are meant to share this land,” said Inon, who named the hostel chain he co-founded after the biblical Abraham, who is considered the father of three monotheistic faiths.

When he sought to set up his company’s flagship inn in the predominantly Arab northern Israeli town of Nazareth in 2005, the structure’s Palestinian owners were at first deeply mistrustful. But eventually, they became partners and close friends, and the guesthouse is named for the Palestinian family’s late patriarch, Fauzi Azar.

Thirteen days after his parents’ deaths, Inon’s family held a memorial ceremony in Nazareth, and were overwhelmed by the Arab community’s response.

“They came, so very, very many of them, to be together with us, to mourn as they would their own,” he said. “To cry with us.”

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Grief is rarely uncomplicated, and even stories of shared pain sometimes splinter into angry counternarratives.

Israel rejoiced as one when 85-year-old Yocheved Lifshitz, who had been held hostage for 17 days in Gaza, was released Oct. 23, along with 79-year-old Nurit Cooper, a neighbor abducted from the same kibbutz.

They were the second pair of hostages to be freed, after the release three days earlier of an American-Israeli mother and daughter, Judith and Natalie Raanan, from suburban Chicago. In addition, after Israel’s ground assault on Gaza began, Israeli forces rescued a 19-year-old Israeli female soldier named Ori Megidish.

Lifshitz is the only one to offer a public account of her ordeal.

A woman waving from a wheelchair as she passes several onlookers

Former hostage Yocheved Lifshitz, 85, caused an uproar when she spoke highly of her Hamas captors and criticized Israel’s government and military, saying they’d failed to heed multiple warning signs of trouble around Gaza.

(Ariel Schalit / Associated Press)

Speaking briefly but lucidly from a wheelchair at Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital the day after her release, she told of being beaten as she was seized and spirited away by motorcycle, and then led through a network of tunnels she likened to a “spider’s web.”

But there was a national wave of surprise and displeasure after Lifshitz, describing conditions under which she was held, said she was treated “gently” by captors who “fulfilled all of our needs.” She also offered up a robust critique of the government and military officials who she said had failed to heed multiple warning signs of trouble on the Gaza frontier.

That was enough to get her pilloried on Israeli social media, with some commentators taking angry exception to how the octogenarian, on the moment of her handover to the Red Cross, turned to shake the hand of one of the Hamas fighters and say, “Shalom” — peace.

An angry backlash ensued from online defenders of Lifshitz, who pointed out that her 83-year-old husband was still in Hamas custody and that she had described only her own experiences. Israeli officials quickly announced a new “protocol” for handling freed hostages, under which they would be treated in a closed hospital ward, with closely guarded access only by family, medical staff and security officials.

Lior Amihai, the executive director of Israel’s venerable rights organization Peace Now, expressed incredulity over the venom directed at Lifshitz, calling it “absurd.”

“It’s outrageous seeing an Israeli citizen who was released being attacked, just for mentioning what it was like for her,” said Amihai, who saw parallels between the ire aimed at Lifshitz and verbal assaults on Israeli human rights groups like her own.

But Amihai, together with other peace activists, also expressed sadness and disbelief over the ways in which ostensible allies inside and outside Israel had minimized the Hamas attack, while lambasting Israel over mounting civilian deaths in Gaza.

“We talk all the time about what the Israeli government does, and criticize it harshly,” she said. “When there are progressives in places of importance — universities and academics and artists — disregarding this horrific event, the terror attack that Hamas did … ”

She trailed off, then continued quietly: “It’s not to say Israel shouldn’t be criticized, and so many innocent Palestinians are dead — that is worth criticizing. But when we saw that many states ignored completely the assault that Hamas did, we felt very alone.”

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Some of those in Israel’s “peace camp” find themselves in a different kind of encampment these days: on the front lines of the war with Hamas.

They went willingly. Many Israeli military reservists who are part of the anti-occupation movement nonetheless answered the call-up of more than 360,000 troops for the week-old ground offensive in Gaza and the defense of the northern border, where tensions are high with Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia.

During 10 months of huge protests against Netanyahu and antidemocratic measures undertaken by the Israeli leader and a far-right Cabinet, reservists threatened en masse to refuse to serve if he pushed ahead with his plans.

But so severe was the sense of crisis precipitated by the Hamas attack, and the swell of national unity in the face of what was seen as the gravest of threats, that reservists flocked to rejoin their units, seeing this war as one to defend their homes and families.

“What’s very important is seeing all this through the lens of our work,” said Ori Givati of the group Breaking the Silence, which collects testimony from soldiers, discharged or still serving, about their experiences in the Palestinian territories. Many have offered up searing stories of systematic abuse of Palestinians, including acknowledgment of their own complicity.

“We have an unprecedented situation — we have friends and family who were murdered or kidnapped. Many of them are peace activists and part of our movement,” said Givati, a 32-year-old former tank commander. “It’s a very difficult time, after these Hamas atrocities against our society. We’re still learning and connecting the pieces.”

In spite of everything, he said, the enveloping horror brought a degree of clarity.

“This is so much worse than our worst-case scenario,” Givati said. “But the concept of managing the conflict, managing the occupation — it doesn’t work. And we knew it didn’t work. If there was ever any doubt, now it’s gone.”

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At 32, Hayim Katsman was a scholar, a military veteran, a peace activist. He was killed Oct. 7 in a kibbutz called Holit, where he had chosen to live, his mother said, because it was a community considered a bit down on its luck, one that needed young residents to revive it.

When it was time to bury him, his 27-year-old sibling, Noy, stepped up to deliver the eulogy. Noy, who is nonbinary, said later they were a little afraid of causing offense at a solemn gathering, when they did not know the political leanings of all those present.

Nonetheless, the message was delivered steadfastly.

“Do not use our death and our pain to bring the death and pain of other people and other families,” Noy told the crowd. “Let us understand that the only way is freedom and equal rights.”

Afterward, Noy said, one mourner after another pressed forward to say that the words were exactly the ones that Hayim would have wanted spoken.

But the impassioned eulogy drew social media attention, and some called Noy, who afterward returned to Germany to continue their studies, a traitor. Or a terrorist.

A soldier with a rifle stands by as two tanks with armed troops on top drive along a dusty street

Israeli army tanks head to the Gaza Strip last week. Many Israeli military reservists who are part of the anti-occupation movement volunteered to serve after the Hamas attack.

(Ariel Schalit / Associated Press)

“That’s how sad it is — just because I don’t want to kill innocent people,” Noy recounted.

An Israeli public opinion poll conducted just before the start of the army’s ground assault found that about half of those surveyed were hesitant about whether the military should push ahead with an incursion into Gaza.

The Maariv newspaper, which published the poll, pointed to a dip in support for intensified ground action, compared with findings a week earlier that indicated nearly two-thirds of the public wanted to go ahead. But the paper said people’s major qualms centered on fear for the hostages’ safety, not on Israel’s military aims or the enormous civilian toll inside Gaza.

Israelis such as Inon, though, are confident that their viewpoint is gaining traction, even if it takes time. A long time, perhaps.

“There are many voices, coming from sorrow and pain,” he said. “I’m dreaming that our tears can wash the wounds of both sides, and maybe heal them.”

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