Before Hamas’ unprecedented incursion into Israeli territory on October 7, Kibbutz Be’eri was a cherished corner of paradise.
Situated in the northwestern Negev Desert, its avocado groves and fields of cotton, wheat and barley were shared by a close-knit group of inhabitants practicing a communal way of life rooted in a socialist brand of Zionism.
Its 1,100 residents had become accustomed to the sounds of an air defense system intercepting occasional incoming rockets from the nearby Gaza Strip, but visitors were often surprised by the glaring reminder of a decades-long conflict that would otherwise go on largely unnoticed.
Ariella Giniger was visiting her friend Vivian Silver, a 74-year-old Canadian-born peace activist, two weeks before the surprise attack that killed 1,200 people in southern Israel, including about 100 Be’eri residents.
While walking in the desert in the morning, they came across a fence running 41 km (25 mi) north along the perimeter of the enclave. “I was a little nervous looking at Gaza,” Giniger, 70, told Al Jazeera. “I said, ‘Let’s go back so we can make it to yoga,’ and we had a nice breakfast.”
On October 4, days before the manicured landscape became the scene of death and destruction, Silver, founder of the Israeli-Palestinian Women Wage Peace (WWP) movement, marched from Jerusalem alongside Israeli and Palestinian women advocating for a peaceful, women’s-led solution conflict.
The march was the culmination of years of work. When they reached the shores of the Dead Sea, they gathered around a symbolic negotiating table. “We called for an agreement, not a ‘settlement’ or ‘understanding,'” said Giniger, an active member of WWP. “An agreement is something both sides agree to. We thought every mother in the world would want this.”
Three days later, on a day now commonly known as Black Saturday, Hamas fighters broke through the fence separating the two worlds. They targeted border areas in Israel, many of which were historic left-wing strongholds and whose residents identified as peace advocates.
It was confirmed this week that Silver, who moved to Israel from Winnipeg in 1973 to engage in peace work, was among the victims. Her remains were identified at Kibbutz Be’eri, dashing hopes that she might have been captured and taken to Gaza along with about 240 other people.
Talk of reconciliation among Israeli leftists has largely been replaced by raw feelings of pain and grief in the face of widespread support for Israel’s war on Gaza. Hours after the Hamas attack, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised to “execute mighty revenge” and “turn Gaza into a desert island.” He launched a ruthless bombing campaign followed by a ground invasion that killed at least 11,500 Palestinians in Gaza, including more than 4,700 children.
Some grieving Israelis are determined not to let their losses be used to justify revenge against the people of Gaza, even as any prospects for peace seem more outlandish than ever. “We are just drowning in our own violence and blood,” Yonatan Zeigen, Silver’s 35-year-old son, told Al Jazeera. “Israel will not cure our dead children by killing more children.”
Silver was one of several victims known to regularly volunteer to take sick Palestinians from the Gaza border to hospitals in Israel for treatment. Before June 2007, when Hamas took control of the enclave and Israel imposed a blockade, she visited Palestinian communities in an attempt to establish dialogue.
“My mother believed in interpersonal encounters. She did a lot to bring people from both sides together, to humanize each other and see that ultimately we all want a peaceful life,” Zeigen said.
“The concept of resistance cannot be eradicated by force, but by peace. So the question is: is there a possibility of peace?”
Individual efforts to build bridges often conflict with the Israeli government’s approach to security. For the better part of two decades, an estimated 2.3 million Palestinians have been confined to an area of 365 square kilometers (140 square miles) under severe economic and movement restrictions. In 2022, Israel rejected more than 20,000 requests from patients seeking medical care in Israeli hospitals, according to Israeli regulator B’Tselem. The reasons for rejection are never revealed.
Gaza, described by human rights groups as an “open-air prison”, was created by the mass exodus of Palestinians during the war that followed the creation of Israel in May 1948. More than 700,000 Palestinians were displaced from their homes, an event remembered as Nakba, which means “disaster”.
On the other side of the fence surrounding the crowded strip, kibbutzim residents live in towns that once had Palestinian names, with allowances to expand their homes as they have more children. The Law of Return, passed by the Israeli parliament in 1950, gives Jews from around the world the right to relocate to the land and acquire citizenship, a process known as “making aliyah.”
Competing land claims and failed attempts to negotiate a two-state solution have long made the Israeli-Palestinian conflict one of the most intractable in the world.
Udi Goren, a photographer and activist, was among a group of Israelis and Palestinians offering dual-narrative tours of the region before recent hostilities put a damper on tourism.
Goren’s family was now embroiled in conflict. His 42-year-old cousin, Tal Haimi, was taken prisoner at Nir Yithak, a kibbutz located 35 km from Be’eri. The father-of-three is believed to have left the bomb shelter to confront the attackers when it became clear that a ground attack was taking place.
“He’s a really brave guy, always the first to offer help and has a constant smile on his face,” Goren told Al Jazeera. “I don’t see how continuing this war will bring back my cousin.”
Goren has been vocal about a group of relatives demanding the return of all captives in exchange for a ceasefire in Gaza. While the call for revenge among the Israeli public was “loud and clear”, he said he was “horrified” by the number of civilian deaths in Gaza.
“I don’t think what we’re doing is in Israel’s interest,” he said. “Victory over Hamas will not come through war. No way. “Ensuring that Hamas does not return after this war means reaching serious agreements on the regional status quo and giving Gazans hope.”
“War is easier than dialogue”
Speaking on behalf of the captives’ families before the United Nations on October 25, Rachel Goldberg-Polin declared that she had been “living on another planet” since she received the shocking news that her 23-year-old son Hersh had been abducted by Hamas.
The Israeli-American was among 3,000 revelers attending an electronic music festival 5.3 kilometers (3.3 miles) from Gaza when Hamas fighters broke through the fence and entered southern Israel.
He sought refuge in a bomb shelter and was later captured on camera being abducted by Hamas. The lower half of his left arm appeared to have been torn off by the grenade, so he used a makeshift tourniquet from his clothes to stop the bleeding.
Choked with emotion, Goldberg-Polin spoke about the pain of not knowing whether her son was alive or had died minutes, hours or days ago. But she also emphasized that in times of trial, everyone around the world is called to ask themselves: “Do I aspire to be human, or am I consumed by the tempting and delicious world of hatred?”
In an interview with Al Jazeera, she said that “the cycles of violence that people engage in are not productive.” “We go through cycles of hate, war, violence and revenge, and the people who get hurt are innocent,” she added.
She described Hersh as a voracious reader with a dry sense of humor and a love of travel and music. Members of the Bring Hersh Home campaign also described him as a staunch anti-racist and a member of Hapoel Jerusalem, a politically left-wing football club rooted in socialist principles.
“Dialogue is always a way to deal with conflict because it is much easier to go to war,” Goldberg-Polin said. “There are parts of my society that I am not proud of, and it is important to be able to say: ‘I am a Jew and I do not agree with the atrocities that Jewish terrorists committed against our Palestinian neighbors. They are unacceptable.”
“But this is not a pain competition. Nobody wins. We all suffered terribly,” she added. “The fear of the other is much easier, but there are still people who want a society that can work for everyone.”