According to press reports, Israel was willing to continue the current pause for at least three more days since Hamas had claimed that it still had about 30 senior citizens, women and children that it was willing to release in exchange for 3 prisoners each. Hamas was required to provide a list of at least 10 hostages that it would be releasing by midnight to ensure another day of pause. But last night, instead of providing a list of hostages, Hamas sent some missiles. The Israeli army responded by indicating that operations against Gaza had resumed.
It is very difficult to predict how this war is likely to develop and how or when it might end.
On the one hand, various countries are making extensive efforts to negotiate further pauses in the fighting to allow for additional prisoner/hostage exchanges and discuss possible conditions for a longer term cease fire. From my understanding, Israel would be prepared to make extensive concessions to obtain the release of the remaining hostages - approximately 139 of them - according to Ynet News. In exchange for Israeli soldiers - and other remaining hostages, Israel is apparently prepared to release some of the most hardened terrorists that it is holding - which creates its own moral dilemmas.
On the other hand, after the massacre of October 7, 2023 and the accompanying declaration of war by Hamas, the Israeli government determined that its war objectives included defeating Hamas and eliminating it as the governing power in Gaza. As well, its objectives included destroying as much of Hamas' underground tunnel network as possible. If Israel does not make significant progress towards these goals, the war will be seen as a major victory for Hamas. This would keep all Israeli border settlements in a state of continued ongoing risk, would create regional deterrence problems for Israel in the region and would leave Israel simply waiting for another attack. Those outcomes are unacceptable and dangerous.
From reports I have seen on the various Israeli channels, Israel has degraded approximately 20-25% of the Hamas forces, primarily in northern Gaza. Most of the remaining forces, including two of Hamas' "elite units" are in Jabaliya and Khan Yunis. I don't expect this war to end without significant fighting in those areas. This war may take a while.
A Word about Civilians
Before the pause, the "Hamas Health Ministry" claimed that more than 20,000 Palestinians had been killed and alleged that the majority were civilians. As of now, the same "Ministry" is claiming that just over 14,000 were killed. That is still a very large number, no doubt. However, there is simply no reason to accept anything that Hamas says as having even a kernel of truth to it. As we know from the hospital incident early on, Hamas claimed that Israel had killed some 500 civilians. It later turned out that it was an "own goal" - a missile fired by the Islamic Jihad - and less than 50 Palestinians had been killed.
More importantly, Hamas has not indicated how many of the alleged 14,000 alleged deaths have been Hamas fighters. Contrary to what one might read or hear in some western media - including places like the BBC, the Toronto Star and other illustrious media outlets, Israel is primarily fighting Hamas militants and is not randomly killing civilians. If Israel were trying to kill civilians deliberately, the death toll would be hundreds of thousands (like what Assad did in Syria). Instead, Israel urged civilians to leave the north before attacking, which probably allowed thousands of Hamas fighters to leave along with the civilians. Based on reports in the Israeli media, it is almost certain that a very high percentage of the Palestinians who have been killed are Hamas fighters.
That is not to say that civilians in Gaza are not suffering. They are and many have been killed. But it is their government that launched a war and there is a very high level of support for this Hamas war among Gazan Palestinians. They were cheering and distributing candies when they heard news of the October 7 massacre and now they are reckoning with the consequences of supporting that regime. People around the world are calling for a ceasefire - which is like people who may have called for a ceasefire during WWII instead of a victory by the allies. People who really care about the Palestinians should be calling for a Hamas surrender now not a ceasefire.
Some of the released hostages have been providing information about who was holding them in captivity. One prisoner was being held in the attic of the house of a senior UNRWA official (UNRWA being a UN funded organization devoted to continuing Palestinian refugee status perpetually). Another returned hostage was being held in the house of a Palestinian doctor. There are many similar stories. In other words, many of the hostages were distributed to and being held by "civilians."
I have spoken to some soldiers who were in northern Gaza going house to house looking for Hamas fighters. They found hidden weapons caches in the vast majority of homes they entered. In some cases, rocket launchers and rockets. In other cases, Kalashnikovs, grenades and other weapons. Sometimes these were in children's bedrooms, in plain sight or in closets or under beds. Other times, in basements, attics or under trap doors. I saw videos from several of these houses. The soldiers told me that from what they saw (and their video evidence), they entered very few homes of "innocent civilians" who were uninvolved.
Despite all of this, it is clear that a growing proportion of world leaders are beginning to pressure Israel to end this war, using the concern about civilians as the main basis for taking these positions. President Biden and Secretary of State Blinken seem to be moving down this path. But at this point, it seems to me that Israel will have to resist these calls for now - until it is at least able to accomplish some of its primary war objectives.
There is also a question of "what happens next." On this, I haven't yet heard any sensible and workable proposal from Israel, the U.S., or anyone else. Essentially, Gaza needs some sort of outcome that is comparable to the Allies' defeat in WWII. A complete victory by Israel or a surrender by Hamas. Followed by a plan to rebuild Gaza, focusing on education, health care and economy - while keeping the area demilitarized.
One precondition is that Hamas has to be defeated or has to surrender. This could take weeks, months or even longer. But I don't see how Israel can accept anything less than one of these two outcomes.
A second precondition is that the Palestinians have to be prepared to live under this type of arrangement. Again, I have no idea how to implement that, who would police it and keep it demilitarized and whether it could even work. But a Hamas government on Israel's border, after the massacre and all of the other wars is just not feasible.
So for now, while we may soon see another pause or two - and some additional hostage deals, I expect that we are in for an extensive period of fighting, especially in southern Gaza. The landscape will have to change significantly before a long term arrangement can be reached.
Stories of Captivity
There are so many stories being circulated from the various Israeli hostages who were released - and they are available on many different sites and publications.
A few items caught my attention in particular.
The hostages were almost all underfed and undernourished. Not visited by the Red Cross or anyone else. No one really knew if they were dead or alive. Some released Thai workers said in an interview that they were so hungry they resorted to eating toilet paper.
One hostage, Rony Kriboy, age 25, a dual Russian-Israeli citizen, was taken hostage at the Nova music festival. Somehow he managed to escape from captivity. But he had nothing with him. No food, no money, no phone, no water. He spent four days trying to get out of Gaza, while scrounging for food. Eventually, he was caught by Palestinian civilians and turned over to Hamas again. Miraculously, they didn't kill him. He was released with the reported intervention of Putin as part of one of the exchanges.
Another released hostage, Mia Schem, had a severe arm injury. Hamas brought a veterinarian to operate on her arm. She is now undergoing treatment in an Israeli hospital. She had been forced to make a video while in Hamas captivity claiming that she was being treated well.
Eitan Yahalomi, age 12, was forced to watch videos of the Hamas massacres over and over while in captivity. He was held by Hamas for more than 50 days. He was threatened with weapons repeatedly.
9 year old Emily hand was released this week. She returned to her father to learn that her mother had been killed on October 7. She will only speak in whispers now after having been traumatized by Hamas for more than 7 weeks.
Some 139 hostages are still being held by Hamas. Even though it was part of the "pause" deal that the International Red Cross would be able to visit the prisoners, Hamas did not honour the deal and did not allow any visits. We still do not know how many hostages are alive, what condition they are in or how they are being held.
Israel is still hoping to reach some type of deal to release as many as possible if not all of them. But so far, it has not been able to reach a deal with Hamas through the bargaining agents - Qatar, Egypt and the U.S.
Conditions in Israel
During the brief 7-day pause, many things came back to life in many parts of Israel. Restaurants were full, bars and pubs in Tel-Aviv and other places were bustling - and many soldiers were able to get a bit of a much needed break. We were able to host 7 of them for big dinner earlier this week. Some soldiers had not been home for 30 days or more and had been living and sleeping "in the field."
Of course thousands of Israelis are living in uncertain temporary arrangements since whole communities were destroyed on Oct 7. Others have been temporarily evacuated from their homes in the north due to the ongoing threat from Hezbollah. Some are staying in hotels. Some are staying with friends and relatives. But there is an enormous amount of work to do to return all of these people to any semblance of normalcy.
We had a few days of very heavy rain but the sun returned and the past few days have been like late August days in Toronto - sunny and beautiful - and during a "pause" - even calm in parts of the country.
But yesterday was anything but calm. Three Israelis were killed and several others injured in a shooting attack in Jerusalem. Hamas took responsibility and that was during the "pause."
The day before, terrorists had opened fire and killed two soldiers and wounded others.
Even so, people were waiting with anticipation yesterday to see what would happen and whether the pause would be extended. Instead, we woke up to news that the fighting would continue intensely and no other hostages would be released. And we are back to a situation of uncertainty, concern and worry. As they say in Yiddish - on shpilkes.
We were planning to host some close friends in early January. They have had to cancel their trip. Understandably. Cloudy with a chance of missiles is not the best forecast for a vacation. Another friend is planning to come and volunteer in late December. So far, that is still going ahead. And one other friend, with family members living here, arrived for a visit earlier this week. People are still flying to and from Israel, mostly on El Al. So our "hotel" is open and you are welcome to visit - even during a war. We have an on-premises safe room (with extra thick concrete walls, designed to withstand a direct missile hit) though we hope that will never have to find out if it actually works.
I have to travel to Toronto again for a short visit. Once again, I will have to mix and match some crazy flight schedules. I have a trip through Amsterdam coming up - with El Al to Amsterdam and then Air Canada to Toronto. I am not looking forward to it after the nasty experience I had on the way to Israel. But I couldn't change it - other than to move the Air Canada leg to a later time to allow more time.
Coming back, I am still looking at options. Considering a change in London, Frankfurt or some other places. I am trying to stick with the Star Alliance as much possible since I get such a great benefit from flying on Air Canada or other partners. But no Star Alliance airline is currently flying to Tel Aviv. So anyone flying to Israel via a Star Alliance flight must switch over to El Al.
If you don't care about which airline you are taking - the easiest way to get to and from Israel now from Toronto is clearly El Al from New York with a connecting flight on Delta or American. One friend of ours recently completed a fairly last minute booking for less than $2,000 (Canadian) (about $1,100 USD) - using El Al and Delta.
Chanukah is fast approaching. For Israelis, that means eating doughnuts - or Sofganyot, as they are called. The big fat jelly-filled, icing-sugar-coated calorie bombs. Personally, they have never done anything for me. I always associated Chanukah with potato latkes - whether they were being made by my mother, one of my two dear late grandmothers - or anyone else. I still love latkes. But somehow, in Israel, Chanukah is much more likely to be associated with sofganyot. Of course, I do my part to swim against the tide. I certainly plan on making a bunch of latkes - using whatever I learned from watching my two bubbies and my mom. Not that much healthier than the doughnuts, I suppose, but once or twice a year - I really enjoy having a few....(or more than a few).
That's about it for now. It will probably be two to three weeks before I put together another blog, unless I manage to find the time to put together another one sooner. For now, I wish everyone a Shabbat Shalom and Happy Chanukah. We continue to hope and pray for the safe return of all of the remaining hostages, for the safety of all of our soldiers, security personnel and all of the residents of Israel, across the country. I probably have to add that we also hope and pray for the safety of Jews everywhere, throughout the diaspora, as we have seen some really crazy threats and attacks on Jews around the world. Finally, I hope that we will see an end to the war soon with Israel achieving a significant proportion of its war aims so that we can try to usher in a new period of hope, relative peace, stability and security. Perhaps that is only a dream - but we have to hope - and try.