Netanel Ohana is almost ready. Just has to put his son, Ari, to bed, at the same time he has for the last few years. It’s the least – and maybe only – he can do to restore normalcy to his life, and that of his family, even though he knows there may be no such thing as normal again. Not now.
“For the first time in my life,” says the 31-year-old father of two, Israel’s top beach volleyball defender, “I’m scared to walk in Israel.”
“Only the Holocaust survivors have felt this”
He thought it was a prank at first. Surely the reports he was seeing on social media on October 7 at 6:30 in the morning were wrong. That Hamas terrorists weren’t streaming into Israel by the thousands. That paragliders were dropping in on a music festival. That, per news reports, women were being raped, babies desecrated, hostages taken, dragged through the streets. A sick joke.
“An attack in the center of Israel? At 6:30 in the morning on Saturday, a holiday?” Ohana says, incredulous.
That Saturday was Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah.
“Most of the military was free to spend the Holidays at home,” said Ohana, who served in the Israel Defense Forces from 2011-2014. “It’s difficult to say that it’s a complement, but Hamas did it smart, they timed it and they played it quiet – ‘the money you give us, this is what we’re looking for, you keep giving us money, we keep preventing attacks,’ so we thought ‘OK, they get the money, they get the jobs, they get the opportunities, they get the future they always say they want. We can let them go a little bit. We can cut some more on the defense, you can go, this can go.’ It was tactically played perfect. Unfortunately it worked.”
It worked to the tune of what Ohana calls “the worst event in Jewish history since the Holocaust. They just kill them because they’re Jews. They don’t care if it’s a baby, months old, not even kids that were found dead and desecrated. Not just dead. It’s trauma that is never going to heal.”
More than 1,300 have been confirmed as dead, another 2,100-plus wounded. Fourteen Israeli towns and communities were attacked, with terrorists entering homes and apartments, killing indiscriminately. Men. Women. Children. Didn’t matter.
“Only the Holocaust survivors have felt this,” Ohana said. “The laws of war that innocent people should be untouched, that is not a rule here. It’s trying to eliminate Jewish people. The conflict is complicated, but the goal is simple: Eliminate the Jewish state. It sounds crazy but it is what it is. It’s very difficult to understand that the conflict doesn’t have a future.”
There is an important distinction to make, one that is becoming increasingly muddled: It is perhaps the goal of Hamas to, as Ohana says, “eliminate Jewish people,” though many in Palestine simply wish to end Israeli occupation. Still, what has transpired has been “like a movie,” Ohana said. “No one believes what he sees or hears. Most of Israel, it’s a small place, and thousands already, maybe 75 percent of Israel knows someone, somehow – served with him in the army, studied with him. It was a very big festival and they massacred 300 people and luckily a lot managed to run and survive. There are a lot of videos from there. I try not to watch. It’s something human eyes shouldn’t see.”
Ohana knows the war, Biblical in its deep-seated roots, is not a simple one. Israel and Palestine have been in conflict with one another for centuries, warring over territory and ideology. When the Israeli state was established in 1948, that conflict only deepened, giving the impression of Israel as a hostile colonizer, suppressing Palestine and the Gaza Strip. The reality is far more complicated.
“We want to help them, because if we help them, maybe we will have peace,” Ohana said of the Palestinians. “If we help them, then people will have something to lose. They make money in Israel, they support their families while working in Israel, so they will not want to attack us. People think we abuse them, we kill them on purpose. We can’t go to Gaza. If you were a Jew or from Israel and you try to go to Gaza, you will be killed in 15 minutes or faster. But we let people from Gaza into Israel.
“In Israel, we offer them work, citizenship. Care about yourself. Care about your community. Don’t provoke the Jews. Don’t try to kill someone on the streets. In the last two years, at least half the terror attacks have been Palestinians bringing guns and started shooting people. They had working permits in Israel. That’s why they were in Israel. The conflict is very deep, and very difficult to understand, and there are two sides. People think we don’t give them a future, that we are the bad guys. It’s very, very deep now.”
While much of what Ohana says is true, some of it sounds, and is, a bit quixotic. There are angels and demons on either side of the divide.
The problem now is that the spread of information — and, more importantly, false information — is now a war in and of itself, and it is nearly impossible to know what is up and what is down. Earlier this week, many of the major news outlets in the United States — New York Times, Washington Post, Reuters, to name a few — reported that an Israeli rocket leveled a hospital. The Times even ran an image of a blown-up building, only that building wasn’t the hospital. The news spread fast, leading to attacks on synagogues and marches on embassies. It is the dominant narrative now.
It’s also a lie.
The rocket was never fired by Israel. It was fired from within Gaza.
“I’m not here to say Israel is perfect and everything, but there is two sides to the conflict, and since the Israeli state has been established there is one side that actively attacks civilians, normal people, unarmed civilians and targets them and there is one side that just defends itself. That’s the biggest difference and people don’t understand.
“The key for the world to understand that we hurt sometimes people that are not terrorists, but the people from Hamas, they shoot missiles from schools, because they know it will cause a problem for us. We have to get into this conflict, we shoot the school and we get condemned all over the world or we let them keep shooting and then can kill our people.”
This is not a war that is about territory or money or power. What has happened in Israel the past two-plus weeks is savage, inhumane, barbaric. It is one that pits both Israel and Palestine in an extremist light, which may be exactly the goal of Hamas and other various terrorist organizations, who often go hand-in-hand with Palestine but aren’t necessarily one and the same.
“The problem that makes it worse, it’s a religion war. It’s Jihad. It’s blind. It’s not Western thinking,” Ohana said. “It’s a very, very ancient Jihad when the holy books were written. This is what we live by now.”
“You choose how you die”
It is an impossible situation with an impossible solution. Ohana knows this. Hamas was elected into power by the people of Palestine, yet it is Hamas who holds them hostage. When Israel warns Palestine that there is a strike coming, encouraging citizens to evacuate, Hamas doesn’t allow it.
“They threaten them that if you evacuate, we’ll kill your family,” Ohana said. “So you choose how you die. The Hamas, they don’t care about the Palestine people or Palestine.”
Now Israel has a choice, and the finest of lines to navigate: There must be a retaliation, but too much, and Iran, who funds Hamas, steps in. The ripple effect goes from there: Lebanon, Syria, Iraq – all controlled, Ohana says, by Iran – then step in. The USA, which has been funding the Israel Defense Forces since 1999 when it signed the Memorandum of Understanding and has provided Israel $150 billion, has already stepped in.
“We’re surging additional military assistance, including ammunition and interceptors to replenish Iron Dome,” President Joe Biden said Tuesday. “We’re going to make sure that Israel does not run out of these critical assets to defend its cities and its citizens.”
Since October, Hamas has fired more than 5,000 missiles at Israel, almost all of which have been intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome, according to the Israel Defense Forces. Such events are, chillingly, normal for Ohana and his family.
“On one side we are used to this reality,” he said. “They send a lot of missiles for the last maybe one and a half years. To that, we are used to it. It’s not easy, especially when you have living kids. My son is afraid of the alarms, he’s four and a half.
“Crying and sharing your difficulties, it’s not rare these days. I see people crying in Tel Aviv, in our home. It’s very hard, emotionally, to deal with.”
Ohana is doing what he can to restore any semblance of normalcy in his home, with his son, year-old daughter, Shaya, and wife, Gal. Ari’s kindergarten classes have resumed on Zoom. He still attempts to get to the gym, mostly to remain sane than to keep his legs and shoulder fit for a return to the beach, whenever – if ever – that may be.
“If I don’t get to train for a month, it’s in perspective,” he said, shrugging. “There are much bigger things.”
It is not just Israel, or Ohana, who will be tasked with this bigger perspective. On Monday, October 9, Hamas commander Mahmoud al-Zahar issued a grave warning: “The entire planet will be under our law, there will be no more Jews or Christian traitors.”
In many Western countries, it has become unsafe to simply be Jewish.
In Toronto, three men were arrested for making threats to the Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto. In Paris, after the government banned pro-Palestinian protests out of fear of civil unrest, several hundred still showed up in the downtown area chanting “Israel murderer.” In front of the Sydney Opera House in Australia Tuesday night, more than 1,000 protestors demanded “gas the Jews.” A group of men attended another rally in Melbourne that night, where they reportedly said they were “on the hunt to kill Jews.” Across college campuses in the United States, hate crimes towards Jews have become rampant. On Tuesday at Drexel University, a Jewish student’s dorm was set on fire. On Thursday at George Mason University, students waved Palestinian flags, changing “glory to the resistance fighters.” At UCLA, hundreds chanted “intifada” – a call for a violent uprising against Israel.
“It’s a big game. It’s not just us against the Palestinians because if we go too strong then Iran might step in. That’s why the US sent their forces. I think the war will be some punches, we will bomb, they will bomb, we will bomb, they will bomb,” Ohana said. “I think the goal for everyone is to keep it small if possible, that Iran won’t step in, that the US won’t step in, because I don’t know who might step in, maybe Russia and then it becomes World War III, something we wish we’d never end up in.”
Ohana sighs. There is little to nothing he can personally do about Hamas and Palestine and Israel. Then he offers a smile. A rare one, given the circumstances.
“How can you look for trouble when you have this at home?” he says, flipping the screen to his daughter, an adorable cherub who was born while he was competing in the Maldives Challenge last fall. “We want to live our lives. We want a future for our children and for us. We want to do beach volleyball, but now traveling and competing looks very far for us. That’s what Israel is about.
“We just want to defend ourselves. When we don’t defend ourselves, this is what happens, and this would happen in every border in Israel if they don’t know we are strong. It would happen all the time. That’s what we want. We want people to know that we want to live peacefully.”