‘This is Israel’s 9/11′: Why Israelis say Hamas’ unprecedented assault will change their country forever – DAVID RAUDALES


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‘This is Israel’s 9/11′: Why Israelis say Hamas’ unprecedented assault will change their country forever

Palestinians take control of an Israeli tank after crossing the border fence with Israel from Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on October 7, 2023.

Said Khatib/AFP via Getty Images

Some are likening Saturday’s attack on Israel by Hamas to the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US.The scale of the attacks — from land, sea, and air — is unlike anything Israel has faced before.Israelis told Insider how the crisis could remake their country’s future. 

Reut Aisenberg woke with a start on Saturday morning to the sound of air raid sirens slicing through the otherwise tranquil Tel Aviv air.

At about 6 a.m., Aisenberg, 36, scrambled into the reinforced concrete safe room inside the flat she shares with her 40-year-old husband and their two young children. Together, in their pajamas, they huddled in the darkness as the first of thousands of missiles rained down over their city, the opening act of a brazen strike by Hamas that some in Israel are calling the country’s “9/11 moment.”

It was far from how the family thought the day would unfold, having planned to mark the annual Simchat Torah holiday at a local park.

The timing of the attack on Saturday morning “was a shock,” Aisenberg told Insider on Sunday night from her home. “No one saw it coming,” she said, adding: “This is going to be a trauma that Israel is going to carry with it from now until the end of time.”

“It’s a very small country and everybody knows someone who is either in the military or someone who lives in one of those communities that were hijacked by terrorists,” Aisenberg said.

Within Israel’s borders, where the clash has already claimed more than 700 lives, people have begun drawing parallels between the onslaught and the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

Multiple Israelis spoke to Insider throughout the weekend about what they’d witnessed and the attack’s impact, which they say will long burn in their nation’s collective memory.

‘You have rockets raining from the sky’

Like 9/11, which changed the United States and its identity for years to come — remaking its national security and intelligence-gathering apparatus, triggering a protracted military campaign in the Middle East, and fueling a sense of patriotism unseen in years — Aisenberg and others agreed that the events of the past 48 hours would also fundamentally reshape Israel from cultural, security, and political perspectives.

Despite the long-term ramifications, for now, Aisenberg is just hoping to ride out the conflict wherever it leads. She feels relatively secure in Tel Aviv since the sirens typically provide about 60 seconds’ worth of warning before the impact of incoming missiles from Gaza.

Compared to the 15 seconds she previously had while serving as a member of the Israeli armed forces in Sderot, a city close to the Gaza border, a full minute feels like a relative luxury — ample time to seek shelter in a stairwell or another location before an explosion.

With 15 seconds, the only option is to run into someone’s house if the door is open, she said, or lay on the ground and “pray to God” that you don’t die.

“I’m not freaking out. I’m still in control,” Aisenberg said. “I can make decisions, I can function. But clearly, it’s not easy. You have rockets raining from the sky.”

Although Israelis are both “shocked” and “very sad,” she said they are resolved not to give in. “We are going to win this.”

Historical parallels

Israel is not a country unaccustomed to violent clashes with its neighbors.

But the scale of these attacks — which saw Hamas fighters take hostages back over the Gaza border and mount offensives across the land, sea, and air from motorized paragliders — are of a different magnitude than the country has witnessed before.

“This is Israel’s 9/11,” Ian Bremmer, a political scientist and founder of the Eurasia Group, a risk research and consulting firm, wrote on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. But, by the sheer volume of casualties, he said, the stakes for Israel are even higher.

Several other posts on the social networking site also likened the attacks to 9/11 or Pearl Harbor, the Japanese attack on an American naval base in Hawaii that drew the United States into the Second World War in 1941.

Jessica Cohen, a 25-year-old American from Long Island, New York, who has called Israel home for the past seven years, was just 3 years old on 9/11 but still remembers how “distraught” her family was that day.

“I can imagine,” she told Insider by phone from her home, about 20 minutes south of Tel Aviv, that this attack on Israel is very much “that same nightmare, that same fear — but 10 times worse.”

Hamas leaders have claimed their incursion was a response to Israeli escalations against Palestinians, including the “desecration” of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Tensions have been exacerbated between Israelis and Palestinians this year as the right-wing government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has supported an increase in the number of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Security experts have said Israel quietly let down its guard amid rising unrest, political infighting, and pushback against Netanyahu’s government.

Some have speculated that Hamas sought to exploit the breach to jettison diplomatic efforts between Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the US that might have resulted in Riyadh extending diplomatic recognition to Israel. Iran, too, appears to have been eager to take advantage of the instability. The Wall Street Journal reported Sunday that Tehran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps had coordinated the strike with Hamas since August.

As was the case with the United States after that attack 22 years ago — which led to a prolonged military campaign in Afghanistan — Israel is already mounting a widespread retaliatory effort called Operation Swords of Iron. Netanyahu has vowed to exact “an unprecedented price” and a response “on a scale and intensity that the enemy has so far not experienced.”

Israeli jets have struck buildings in Gaza, while ground forces have mobilized heavy artillery like tanks and engaged in skirmishes with Hamas fighters. US officials have reportedly predicted that a mass ground invasion is imminent, and more than 400 Palestinians have already died, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry.

Kenneth Quinn, a 57-year-old American high school English teacher who’s lived in Israel for more than three decades, drew other comparisons between this conflict and 9/11 — mainly because both national tragedies claimed high numbers of civilian lives.

“It had never happened in New York,” he explained by phone from Israel. “Something like this had never happened here. In those two ways, it’s similar.”

Up and down the country, Israelis were angered by the lapses that enabled Hamas to evade the eyes of Jerusalem’s military and intelligence services, Quinn added, calling the failures “incomprehensible.” He predicted they could ultimately spell ruin for the political fortunes of the country’s deeply divided coalition government.

Loved ones lost

Some Israelis who spoke to Insider worried that the country might not have expelled all of the Hamas fighters that crossed over from Gaza, which could lead to further violence. Those fears may have been magnified by the unrest in communities near the border region just hours after the attack got underway.

There, close to the Gaza border, Aisenberg’s mother- and father-in-law spent much of Saturday afternoon hiding in their home as Hamas fighters infiltrated their small town and wreaked havoc. Aisenberg said they would relocate to her sister-in-law’s house by way of special armored transports she believed local officials were organizing.

In the central city of Be’er Sheva, Quinn said he’d spent part of Sunday at Soroka Hospital, where wounded Israelis were receiving medical attention. He recounted meeting a woman who had attended the Tribe of Nova festival, where hundreds descended on a site near the Gaza border to revel in a night of music and dance.

The woman — a single mother of several children who did not attend the festival — sustained multiple gunshot wounds after Hamas fighters transformed the event into an early staging ground for their campaign, claiming more than 250 casualties and seizing numerous hostages, according to media reports.

At the hospital, the woman told Quinn that she was separated from her friend during the chaos and had spent hours lying on the ground, pretending to be dead in a bid to survive. She was later discovered alive and is expected to recover from her injuries.

One of Quinn’s former colleagues, a high school teacher who taught physics, also attended the same festival, he came to find out. Unlike the woman who was taken to the hospital, however, the teacher is unaccounted for and, as of Sunday evening, Quinn said it was unclear whether he had been killed or taken hostage.

Cohen, the American woman living south of Tel Aviv, is facing a nightmare of her own: She and her husband, Gilad Peretz, have been unsuccessfully trying to track down Peretz’s 51-year-old father, Mark, who disappeared Saturday morning after racing to pick up his daughter from the music festival.

While his daughter survived, Mark’s whereabouts remain a mystery, Cohen and her husband told Insider. They believe his cellphone is dead, and they say they spotted his white Audi A4 sedan on a newscast not far from where he vanished after the fighting broke out.

‘We cannot afford to be divided’

As the fighting continues, Aisenberg said Israelis are determined to prevail against Hamas and Hezbollah. The second militant group began to provoke additional violence along the northern border that Israel shares with Lebanon following the attacks from Gaza.

Though officially founded after the conclusion of World War II, Israel has faced “so many terrible wars” from “biblical times” through the Holocaust to more recent clashes, Aisenberg said. She hopes that this one will unite the international community behind the embattled Jewish state — but, given its many adversaries on the world stage, it’s unclear whether that hope will be realized.

“I hope this is going to be an incentive for everybody to come together,” she said. “We cannot afford to be divided.”

At the very least, whether or not her sentiments extend to Israel’s allies or her country, whose political organs are racked by painful schisms, Aisenberg and her family are vowing to stick together. As a professional tour guide, her job is to introduce visitors to Israel’s ancient sites, but there’s little need to give tours during a war. Instead, she’ll spend the coming days with her children and her husband, a software engineer who works from home.

Together, they’re ready to ride out whatever comes. And they’ll wait with bated breath, just a few steps from their safe room, until the inevitable din of air raid sirens rings out again.

Are you affected by the crisis in Israel and Gaza, or do you know someone who is and is willing to share their story? Reed Alexander can be reached via email at [email protected] or SMS/the encrypted app Signal at +1 561 247 5758.

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