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And on the third day of the war we went to one of the hotels where they had evacuated those who had fled the disaster on Saturday. We brought pacifiers and diapers and illustrated books. We invited the children to gather in a circle and tried to ease their minds with a story time.
As soon as you entered the lobby, you could recognize them, “the evacuees”: many families from rural and urban areas, adults, children and teenagers. Distinctive in their transience, in their bewilderment. The place was a resort and the setting was of a family vacation, but somehow everything was distorted, too serious, not the way it should be.
Only the day before yesterday they were shaken from their beds in horror and saw their neighbors being slaughtered, their houses burned, and they are still running barefoot, babies and old people in their arms; they came here from the inferno. As if from another planet. And when we came closer and sat among them, even when we hugged and they told us a little, even when a smile curved into their sighs, a sense of foreignness flickered in them, something disturbed in their body language. We saw refugees, survivors of a pogrom. We saw the same persecuted Jews we were taught about in history books, only now they were sitting in a hotel lobby holding an iPhone.
The story time was a failure. People kept coming in and out, children were running around, and there was a lot of noise. We invited them to sit in a circle, and the parents, exhausted, tried in faint voices to encourage them to join us, but the children would not listen. Their eyes glazed, they wanted nothing more than to sink into the screens, or shyly bury themselves in their grandmothers’ laps, or overwhelmed by sugar, stuffed with sweets—in every corner there were boxes of ice cream and chocolate and cookies—they ran around, stricken with trauma and adrenaline, wild with energy, romping or crying. No one felt like listening to a story.
Life here in Israel has fallen out of time. Hours run out and disappear, and days melt into nights. Sirens come and go, rockets fall and the hospitals are overcrowded. More and more soldiers make their way south. And yet another prayer for their safety is whispered on our lips, and now there is a second front on our northern border. Most of us are still in shock, still stunned by the nightmare we woke up to on that Saturday morning. Still rubbing our eyes, we are already in the midst of a full-scale war. Every morning you have that moment of awakening, when the heart suddenly remembers what has happened, and everything in it is frantic. Our country has changed unrecognizably overnight.
Living in Israel in the shadow of the conflict is a state of perpetual emergency. We have had our share of wars and bereavement, and so, so many of our soldiers have lost their lives defending the homeland, and so many civilians have died in terrorist attacks. We are tough and rugged Middle Easterners who have been living here by our swords for 75 years. We are more different and at odds and torn and divided than ever. A civil war almost broke out here last summer. There is only one thing we agree on—right and left, settlers in the West Bank and activists against the occupation—we all acknowledge the fact that we could not have survived in this tough neighborhood without our military superiority. Our security resilience stands above all differences.
And such a thing has never happened to us. Abysmal darkness. Our sovereignty has never ever been violated like this. Hamas broke through the fences into Israel and set out on a barbaric killing rampage against our civilian population. 1,400 people were killed. The hand writes but the heart still refuses to understand its language: We were massacred. Generations eliminated, communities wiped out. And as incomprehensible as the horror may be, the greatest nightmare is still happening: More than 200 of us are being held hostage in Gaza. Our children have been kidnapped, our elderly have been kidnapped. We, who spent five years overwhelmed with worry for one soldier of ours who was captured by Hamas. We, Israelis, who are we now?
And who knows how long this horror story will last, how many chapters are left, what page we are reading now. And who knows? Maybe we too, those who cannot sleep, who watch the news until late at night, you and me, who scroll through the networks and websites in the darkness of our beds, maybe we too are characters in this war tragedy who will end up covered in dust under the rubble of our houses. All the cards have been shuffled, and with every rocket and every siren, they are shuffled again. Every boom that shakes the walls could be our boom.
In the first days, we were overwhelmed with grief. Inconsolable, refusing to believe and already lamenting the death of so many. We hear the stories and mourn bitterly for people we did not know. We stand in long lines and give blood. We donate our money to soldiers, evacuees, the wounded, giving and giving like there is no tomorrow. Our nights are sleepless. Anxious about the fate of the hostages, more and more faces, more and more names, dozens of them babies and kindergarten children. With each passing day, the grip tightens, crushing us more and more.
And from the funeral processions and the visits of condolence, we move on to the collection and volunteer stations, offering to help, otherwise we will go mad with helplessness (this blanket, who will be covered by it? Who will keep warm with this coat?), and a strange feeling of closeness also arises there, in the huge makeshift kitchens and the civic initiatives that help wherever they can, shoulder to shoulder, we harness ourselves and cooperate, efficient, energetic, as one, as if we had been doing this forever.
And in the middle of it all, autumn arrives. The air is sweet and the light soft and milky, as if European. And our city, Tel Aviv, which in the last two years has become unbearable with its endless construction sites, drilling and digging everywhere, long, agitated traffic jams, is suddenly different. Beautiful and paralyzed. Its streets are empty and its roads are quiet, and in the few places that are open the people are hunched over and dazed, careful with their words. Such a small country, and everyone knew someone, and at the edge of every breath a sob quivers.
It has been 24 days since the catastrophe hit, and those first 24 hours repeat themselves over and over again, as if in a loop. Like the sugar-stricken children running in the hotel, we all go round and round in circles, round the sorrow and the rage and the worry about what’s to come, round the regret. Twenty-four days of screaming and crying, how oblivious we were, how stupid.
We are crushed. Our sun shines, but a terrible sense of forsakenness hangs in the air. The concepts of time, the race of life, duties, habits and pleasures, everything is broken. For we are now at war. Our enemy has revealed itself to be indescribably cruel and brutal, and he has also set a contemptible trap for us: Above all those innocent Palestinians Hamas uses as its human shield, now in Gaza there are over 200 Israelis (among them dozens of young kids and babies, for crying out loud!)—what will become of them?
Everything here is pale and silent, and we are gripped by a fear of this war, and at the same time convinced that it is just, inconsolable and resolute, every last one. And in this, too, we are strangers to ourselves: We Israelis, who almost never agree on anything, are suddenly so united. Woe to us, for this has happened to us.
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Translated from Hebrew by Leanne Raday.
Dorit Rabinyan is an acclaimed award-winning Israeli author. Her third novel, All the Rivers (Random House, 2017), became the center of a political scandal in Israel when the Ministry of Education banned the book from high school curricula.