Amid the sadness in Israel, small glimmers of hope

From the Lebanese border in the far north to Eilat in the deep south, stories of wartime courage and resilience


TEL AVIV, ISRAEL - DECEMBER 20: People on motor scooter pass by a wall with photos of hostages taken to the Gaza Strip during the deadly Oct 7 Hamas attack on December 20, 2023 in Tel Aviv, Israel. It has been more than two months since the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas that prompted Israel's retaliatory air and ground campaign in the Gaza Strip. (Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images)

In the early days of war, there were no advertisements on national television. Breaks between breaking news announced that “United, we will win.” Now, advertisements are back, but they are filled with companies showing how they are contributing to the war effort. The supermarkets aren’t showing you the low prices of cheeses, but about how their workers are assisting farmers in the Gaza envelope to harvest their crops. The banks and insurance companies all start with these “difficult times”, but they are here to help, offering mortgage breaks, loans; three months free. The competition to find Israel’s Eurovision singer is back, but all the personal introductions of the artists are tinged with sad stories.

*It's a sadness that hangs over Tel Aviv, where I live. Regular life, if there is such a thing in war time, has seeped back into the city, if reluctantly. Cafes are open, although missing many of the regulars, called up to reserve duty or gone abroad for the war. Boulevards are full of parents with prams, dogs on walks; the sun is mostly shining.

But on my way home to Dizengoff Square, one large teddy bear takes a seat on every bench. Each teddy has red paint over its heart. Posters of the hostages that once plastered every tree and wall have all but come away, left to the elements and the passage of time. In shopfront windows, though, instead of shoe displays or real estate posters, pictures of the hostages still look out, waiting to be rescued. Today, I received my electricity bill, and on the front, it said: “Printed in the Kibbutz Be’eri Print House,” which has reopened since the massacre.

People still mill at Hostage Square, where installations erected by the families dot the plaza. Across the street from the looming tower of the Israeli army’s central headquarters, someone plays Alon Ohel’s piano, a passer-by glances at the perfectly laid Shabbat table, and an old lady sits holding a poster of her grandchild, on shift with other kibbutz or family members to maintain a presence.

The mood at Hostage Square has changed, though. Since that terrible tragedy when three hostages were killed by the IDF, the air has a charge. That very night, shouts towards the square of “leftist traitors” has made the issue of hostages into a political one, not a human one. Do you support the war, and its leader, at any cost, or is your priority to bring home Israeli citizens? The line in the sand has been drawn.


Much, much further south, I took the four-hour journey down to visit kibbutz evacuees from Re’im, Nir Oz and Nir Yitzhak, whose residents are sharing one standard hotel room per family on the shores of the Red Sea. Some are beginning to be moved to a more “permanent” location, still close to the rocky desert mountains of Eilat, as far from the blare of sirens as possible. At least, it is meant to be. The unexpected entry of the Yemeni rebel group, the Houthis, into the war has led to the first battle fought in space, as Israel shoots down ballistic missiles headed for the resort city with its Arrow 3 air defence system.

It’s something the children there, who are attending makeshift schools on the patios of the hotel, are still aware of. One 11-year-old girl, Noya Stamker, told me she’s desperate to go home, but that she’s used to her resort life already, even going snorkelling for the first time. Her teacher told me that at the beginning children spoke of what happened on October 7 “all the time”. Now, they talk about it a lot less.

I even found a minute to go snorkelling, finding solace in the cool water of the Red Sea and the perpetual movement of the coral reef. On the beautiful drive back, through a rainstorm, I watched as my phone lit up with rocket siren alerts on the Home Front Command app. When I stopped to get petrol, a huge Merkava tank parked at one of the stations had spilled some oil, mixing with the rain puddles.


The tourist club at Rosh HaNikra, high on chalk cliffs above turquoise grottos, has been converted into an army base. Metres away from the Lebanon border, soldiers are at the ready for the anti-tank missiles fired across the border, where the radio mast is tattered from being hit over a dozen times. What looks like paradise, with a view down south onto Israel’s coastal towns, can quickly turn into a danger zone. One soldier told me, “we don’t assume anything,” when it comes to which way the battle with Lebanese militia Hezbollah will swing. There are many battalions, reservists and commanders in the north, but it is known that the conscripted soldiers are all fighting in Gaza, the military effort concentrated there.

A British soldier, Ben, left his family and job as a solicitor to serve on the northern border. Within three months, he says, he may no longer be with us. While the focus has been on the enormous loss of life in Gaza, of civilians and Israeli soldiers, the war being fought in the north is almost underreported. But soldiers’ tents, barracks and khaki-green field cots line the dirt roads along the border, which carries east before taking a sharp turn northwards towards Metula. They’ve been there for months, and there’s no sign of them going home. All the towns along there have been evacuated, some 86,000 people in total, and while some schools in the Galilee periphery have reopened, only 30 per cent of the children are showing up for class.

Most of the land here is agricultural, and the loss of income and livelihood is evident. Brave farmers risk their lives coming to tend to their chickens, whose eggs supply the entire IDF and most of the country. The northern commander says we’re missing out on the sweetest apples in the land, the Pink Lady, which lie rotting on the ground.

On the way home from Dovev, I stopped to eat at the Druze village of Hurfeish for sambusak at HaArazim. An understated cafeteria is filled with the chatter of schoolchildren eating pizza topped with corn, or a more traditional labne and zaatar pastry straight from the oven. It epitomises what strikes me most about living here during wartime: that people are able to adapt to new circumstances so quickly, to keep swimming, like the fish in the coral reef.

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