Israel’s Darkest Hours

Richard C. Gross
4 min readOct 12, 2023

By Richard C. Gross

“Only the dead have seen the end of war.”

` — George Santayana, 1863–1912, Spanish-born American philosopher

Israel deployed its armor and other ground forces on Gaza’s doorstep Wednesday as it formed a wartime cabinet with two former army chiefs. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to “crush and eliminate” the Palestinian Hamas militant group.

At the same time, Israel maintained its fierce retaliation for Hamas’ stunning incursion into Israeli cities, towns, kibbutzim and military bases Saturday with barrages of missiles and artillery fired into the narrow Gazan coastal strip jammed with more than 2 million people.

Much was concrete rubble of apartment and office buildings and even mosques in a blistering Israeli “complete siege” of Gaza reprisal for the attacks by an estimated 1,500 militants. They swarmed through a border fence broken in several places, killing at least 1,200 Israelis and wounding at least 2,600 others. Another 150 may be held hostage, including some Americans.

Twenty-two Americans were killed and 27 others were missing, the State Department said. Only a “very small, very small” number, “less than a handful,” was taken hostage, the White House said.

At least 1.127 Palestinians were killed and more than 5,300 were wounded or injured, most civilians, including kids, Gazan health officials said. About 48 percent of Gaza’s people are children.

Israeli soldiers, including those whose responsibility focused on removing bodies, slowly, grimly, sadly sifted through burned and blasted border homes and cars searching for the dead, encountering Palestinian corpses as well. But the Israeli dead — men, women, children — outnumbered them, videos showed.

Gazans have nowhere to run. Israel and Egypt sealed off their borders, effectively locking them in. Israel stopped sending in food, fuel, water and electric power, with hospital generators running dry.

“Every Hamas member is a dead man,” Netanyahu said in an evening address with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and opposition lawmaker Benny Gantz, a onetime defense minister. “Hamas is ISIS, and we will crush and eliminate it just as the world crushed and eliminated ISIS.”

Netanyahu recited atrocities committed by the militants, according to The New York Times, which did not quote him directly. But I’m quoting the paper because of the graphic violence depicted: “Boys and girls had been found shot in the head, people had been burned alive, women had been raped and killed, and soldiers had been beheaded.”

The prime minister, the target of prewar secular anger over proposed changes by his far-right government in order to take control of the judiciary, may lose his job when a postwar government commission reaches a verdict about those at fault for the shocking militant incursion. It happened on his watch. Prime Minister Golda Meir resigned after the 1973 October War.

The sweeping attack marked “the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust,” President Joe Biden told Jewish leaders in what the Times described as an “emotional meeting” in Washington.

“Silence is complicity, it really is,” said Biden, a longtime supporter of Israel. “I refuse to be silent, and I know you refuse to be silent as well.” His audience applauded.

“Israel is in one of its darkest hours ever,” Gantz said.

It could get darker, for both sides.

If Israel’s war cabinet decides to launch a threatened ground invasion of Gaza, it surely would cost far more lives than already have been lost. It’s one thing to seek Hamas’ elimination, another to involve the deaths of more innocent people.

And what would become of the hostages presumably held in Gaza, both Israeli and American, if there would be a full-scale assault?

Revenge killings against militant organizations anywhere rarely have led to peace. Just ask Americans about their futile wars against the Viet Cong in Vietnam and the Taliban in Afghanistan. We withdrew from both countries, our tails between our legs, defeated.

Fighting door-to-door in the streets could be suicidal, risking many Israeli troops as militants fire on them from rooftops, as happened to American Rangers and Delta Force soldiers in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993. The battle was recounted in the book by Mark Bowden and Ridley Scott’s movie, Blackhawk Down.

Somali warlord fighters killed 18 Americans and wounded another 73.

Hamas’ military operation targeted mostly civilians, overshadowing the horror of the surprise attack of the ’73 Yom Kippur War, as it’s known in Israel. That 18-day conflict involved only armies and air forces, not the slaughter of civilians sleeping in their homes during the dawn invasion or young folks dancing overnight at a nearby holiday music festival.

State Department Secretary Antony J. Blinken, who was on his way to Israel, spoke before his departure with the Jewish leaders in Washington:

“We want to make it real clear. We’re working on every aspect of the hostage crisis in Israel, including deploying experts to advise and assist with recovery efforts. There’s a lot we’re doing, a lot we’re doing. I have not given up hope of bringing these folks home.”

Biden, who suffered the loss of his own family members, slipped into his familiar role as a comforter of those who experienced the death of a loved one in remarks to the Jewish leaders:

“I know a little bit of what it’s like to feel loss, lose people you adore, get a phone call saying, ‘They’re gone.’ I get that part. Not the same, but I get that part.

“And what I’ve learned is that as we persevere, we can grow. And the day will come when memory of that person or those persons will bring a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eye. It will happen. It will happen. But God, it takes a long time sometimes.”

The leaders of Israel who may be considering revenge against Hamas should take Biden’s words into consideration. Hamas knows very well how strong is Israel militarily. It doesn’t need more convincing with a ground invasion of Gaza. Don’t fall into Hamas’ trap.

There are ways other than more violence, more needless deaths.

Richard C. Gross covered war and peace in the Middle East, was the Pentagon correspondent and foreign editor for United Press International and was the opinion page editor of The Baltimore Sun.

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Richard C. Gross

Correspondent, bureau chief and foreign editor at home and abroad with United Press International. Retired as opinion page editor of The Baltimore Sun.