In Tel Aviv

Sophia Goodfriend

Many of the patrons at the third-wave coffee roaster I go to in Tel Aviv now wear assault rifles slung over their shoulders. Some of the regulars are among the 400,000 reservists in the Israeli military who have been deployed into combat. Back for the weekend, they clutch onto old routines: drinking espresso on ice in the sun and rolling cigarettes, wearing baggy jeans and tank tops, but bringing their army-issued weapons with them.

Tel Aviv is only 45 miles from Gaza but it usually feels a world away. It’s been called the ‘Miami of the Middle East’, ‘one of the top ten hedonistic cities in the world’, and was 2021’s ‘most expensive city in the world’, where nearly one in ten residents is a millionaire. Built by Jews fleeing Jaffa at the start of the 20th century, the ‘first Jewish city’ was always meant to be cleaved off from its surroundings. In Hebrew, Tel Aviv is colloquially known as the ‘bubble’.

The bubble burst on 7 October, when Hamas militants massacred 1400 Israelis and foreign nationals near the Gaza border and took 250 hostages. In the war that has followed, the thud of the 900-kg bombs dropped on Gaza by Israel’s air force have reverberated all the way to Tel Aviv. Air-raid sirens send people running for shelter at least once a day, where they wait for the Iron Dome defence system to intercept the missiles launched from Gaza by Hamas. People in cafés huddle in stairwells, joggers crouch next to large boulders along on the beach, entire gyms crowd into a basement crawlspace. Then they emerge, and get on with the day. Sometimes the rockets get through: two people were injured today in Tel Aviv.

Israeli airstrikes have reduced entire neighbourhoods in Gaza to rubble while a near total siege has deprived the population of vital supplies: food, water, medicine and fuel. Yet missile defence systems and millions in US military aid allow Tel Avivians to pantomime normality. Some bars are open late and children are back at school. Old routines chafe against the collective trauma of the attack on 7 October. Videos of the slaughter play on endless loop: militants shooting into bungalows, setting rows of houses on fire, taking screaming children hostage. A cabinet minister said Israel is at war with ‘human animals’. An elected politician suggested dropping a nuclear bomb on 2.3 million people.

As in past wars, the reality of the Israeli destruction in Gaza is largely out of sight. Foreign news channels play live footage of the airstrikes that have killed more than eleven thousand Palestinians, including over four thousand children. Yet in most Israeli media, images of children’s bodies being pulled from the rubble, of mothers kissing body bags, of hundreds of thousands of people sleeping in makeshift shelters miles from home, are nowhere to be seen. Support for a war of retribution remains high, tugging on an old idea that national redemption can be delivered through brute force.

Yet decades of military rule over the occupied Palestinian territories have not brought lasting security to Israelis. The unrelenting violence of military rule and blockade – aerial bombardment, the constant hum of reconnaissance drones, limbs mangled by sniper fire during protests at the billion-dollar ‘smart’ border fence, strip searches at checkpoints, detention without trial – have made militant organisations popular to younger generations of Palestinians fed up with empty promises of regional peace.

Young Israelis meanwhile have been taught that evil people want to destroy them, and their self-preservation hinges on the destruction of the evil people. Innovations in surveilling and shooting at a distance promised to contain the Manichean struggle to distant battlefields on the other side of border walls and checkpoints. Successive generations of Israelis grew up isolated from the constraints of the occupation in the West Bank and blind to the blockade of Gaza.

Now that the bubble has burst, few Jewish Israelis are expressing opposition to the military operation (and those who do may be fired from their jobs or threatened by right-wing mobs). This is a battle for Israel’s survival, according to right-wing politicians – even the ones who spent years ensuring that Hamas’s rule over the blockaded Gaza Strip went uncontested. Before 7 October, stickers saying FCK BNGVR were plastered on lamp-posts and public toilet walls, as Israelis took to Tel Aviv’s streets in their tens of thousands to protest against what they saw as their country’s descent into fascism. Now the stickers going up say FCK HMS.