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Israeli soldiers struggle to square political views with the realities of war

Israel put forward its defense against accusations of genocide at the World Court. Catch up here
CNNAmos Shani Atzmon says he doesn’t blame Palestinians in Gaza for hating Israel right now.

“They have really good reasons. When you see cities on fire and are getting bombed … I had one close friend killed in Gaza and I am thinking about the people whose entire families died in bombing,” he said.

An Israel Defence Forces (IDF) reservist, Atzmon, 26, was called up just hours after Hamas launched its brutal terror attack on Israel, murdering around 1,200 people and kidnapping 253 others.

Israel swiftly retaliated to the October 7 assault with a massive aerial bombardment campaign, followed by a ground operation. More than 27,000 people have been killed in Gaza since, according to the Hamas-controlled Health Ministry in the enclave. According to UN agencies, 400,000 Gazans are at risk of starving.

The ministry does not distinguish between Hamas fighters and civilians, but says about 70% of the casualties are women and children. Israel estimates it has killed about 10,000 Hamas militants since October 7. CNN is not able to independently confirm those numbers.

The international community, including some of Israel’s closest allies, are increasingly horrified at the scale of the violence inflicted on civilians in Gaza.

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) found that it was “plausible” that Israel was committing genocide in Gaza and ordered Israel to “take all measures” to limit the death and destruction caused by its military campaign, prevent and punish incitement to genocide, and ensure access to humanitarian aid. The decision by ICJ is not a ruling on whether Israel’s actions constitute genocide.

Regardless, little has changed on the ground.

Atzmon said he is the “left-wing guy” in his unit. Like tens of thousands of others, he had spent most of last spring and summer protesting against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his plans to overhaul Israel’s judiciary.

Netanyahu’s government is the most right-wing in Israel’s history, rejecting the idea of a Palestinian state and supporting Jewish settlements inside the West Bank.

Atzmon, meanwhile, wants Israel to work towards a two-state solution. “The Palestinian people will never stop fighting us until they have their own autonomy. And I think the end goal needs to be that,” he said.

His political views are sometimes difficult to square with the realities of being a soldier, fighting on behalf of a government he doesn’t support. He says he’s been grappling with this since he started forming his political opinions around the age of 15, anticipating his military service – something almost everyone in Israel must complete.

“I’m devastated about the death of people in Gaza, kids, the elderly. Just normal men (aged) 26, like me, we don’t want to die. But I have the right to defend myself and to defend my family, my friends, my loved ones,” he said, rejecting the notion that the Hamas terror attack was an act of “resistance” against the Israeli blockade. “I’m not saying this is not a complex situation. But I’m 100% sure that I’m on the right side of history, and that I’m trying to defend people.”

“What happened in the kibbutzim felt like the most inhuman thing I ever witnessed. So when I’m facing this kind of evil, I felt, and I still feel, that entering the war is the only way. Because these are not people I can speak with or comprehend,” he added.

Hundreds of people were murdered in Be’eri, Nir Oz, Kfar Azza and other kibbutzim near the Gaza perimeter.

Atzmon said he wants Netanyahu, who is on trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, out of the office – the sooner the better. “He should have resigned on the 7th of October. I wanted to wake up on the 8th and watch him on TV telling people ‘I have failed you and I’m sorry. I’m stepping down,’ but that didn’t happen,” he said, adding that he would have welcomed nearly anyone else in the role.

Studying to become a social worker, Atzmon is passionate about his political beliefs. Yet as a soldier, he has fought shoulder to shoulder with people whose opinions couldn’t be further from his own.

Military service is mandatory for all Jewish citizens and for male Druze and Circassian citizens of Israel. Arab citizens and ultra-orthodox Jews are exempt from service, although they may choose to join.

The strict conscription laws mean the military is politically as diverse as Israeli society. People who wouldn’t cross paths otherwise are suddenly thrust together and forced to overcome their differences.

Emmanuel, a 35-year-old reservist currently serving in a combat unit in and around the Gaza Strip, is as passionately right-wing as Atzmon is left-wing.

Unlike Atzmon, Emmanuel is still on active duty and is officially prohibited from speaking to journalists. He has therefore asked CNN not to publish his full name.

He believes Israel will need to control Gaza for years to come, agreeing with Netanyuahu who said he wants Israel to have “overall security responsibility” in the strip for an “indefinite period” after the war ends.

Emmanuel said the West Bank could serve as a blueprint for the future of Gaza. The fact that he refers to the area by its biblical name and ancient Israelite kingdoms – “Judea and Samaria” – is just a small reminder that in this region of divisions and complexities, the words one chooses speak volumes of one’s convictions.

Using the biblical name of the ancient homeland of the Jewish people is one way the Israeli government tries to legitimize Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, which are considered illegal under international law.

Atzmon, on the other hand, calls it the West Bank and says he is “very sure” that it is under occupation.

“[The Palestinians] should control their own area like they do in (some parts) of Judea and Samaria, but where Israel has access to every village and every city,” Emmanuel told CNN in a phone interview, speaking from his base near the Gaza Strip. “If we want to enter Ramallah, it is not a problem. We enter Ramallah, we neutralize the threat.”

Some of Netanyahu’s coalition partners are going a step further, proposing to build Jewish settlements in Gaza.

The issue of Jewish settlements in the West Bank is already a major fault line within Israeli society and in the country’s diplomatic relationships. The idea of building settlements in Gaza has alarmed Israel’s allies, with the United States’ top diplomat rebuking the plans.

Netanyahu himself has so far rejected the idea of new settlements in Gaza as “unrealistic,” saying in an English-language statement that “Israel has no intention of permanently occupying Gaza or displacing its civilian population.”

But Emmanuel supports that idea.

“We must establish new settlements. Not because we want to wipe out the Palestinians. No. We must have a real clear win over our enemies that everybody will understand. This is the price that you pay if you mess with us,” he said.

Over 1.9 million people in Gaza, or nearly 85% of the population, are estimated to be internally displaced, according to the United Nations. Efforts to force them put of their homes permanently would be a breach of international law – and are among the arguments presented by South Africa in its ICJ case against Israel.

“And the second reason is security. We know from Judea and Samaria that it’s easier to control the security in the area if you have settlements there,” he said.

The divisions and arguments within the Israeli society over the future of Gaza and the West Bank have become even deeper and more heated since the October 7 attacks.

Not everyone gets involved, however.

For 19-year-old combat soldier Mendel, the political disagreements seem a bit meaningless at this point.

“The politics … it really doesn’t matter. You’re in the army and you’re there to protect the people and protect each other. And it doesn’t matter what you think, or what you look like or where you’re from,” he told CNN in an interview at a Jerusalem retreat center run by Never Alone, an organization that provides support to “lone soldiers” without family in Israel.

An American from Long Island, Mendel decided to join the IDF after living in Israel for a few years.

Unlike Emmanuel and Atzmon, Mendel does not have previous military experience. He was drafted just a few months before the war broke out and has since been deployed to Gaza as part of the Netzah Yehuda Battalion – an IDF unit that is specifically designed to accommodate religious servicemen. He has also asked CNN not to publish his full name due to his active service.

He said that when being drafted, he didn’t think he would be involved in a war. But things have changed on October 7, he said.

“They are still holding hostages there. What do you want us to do? If we back out and they still have our hostages? What would you do if that was you? What would you want your family doing if that was you?”

Difficult conversations

According to the IDF, 224 Israeli troops have been killed in Gaza since the ground operation began in late October.

Among them, Atzmon said, was his best friend, who was killed in a battle in southern Gaza in late December.

Atzmon told CNN the two had many conversations about the war and the civilians caught up in it — something he regards as part of their duty as soldiers.

“It’s our obligation to think about it and discuss it because the distance between fighting for your loved ones and killing people for revenge is really, really small,” he said during an interview in Jerusalem on Wednesday, just a few days after returning from his deployment.

He said he believes that individual soldiers and the military in general must continually have conversations about what is proportionate force.

“Because if we’re not, if we’re entering Gaza and doing whatever we want out of pure revenge, then we’re going to be as bad as Hamas. And we’re not. I am not going to let them turn me into a murderer,” he said.

But many outside Israel argue the limits of proportionality have been crossed. In an unprecedented display of coordinated dissent, more than 800 officials from the United States and Europe signed a scathing criticism of Western policy towards Israel and Gaza, accusing their governments of possible complicity in war crimes.

Emmanuel said he too sympathizes with innocent civilians. But he said he believes fighting the war the way it is currently conducted is the only option.

He said that successive Israeli governments were wrong to believe that keeping Gaza sealed off and under blockade would “manage” the situation.

“I don’t believe that Churchill or Roosevelt thought they can manage Hitler. There’s no managing your enemies. Either we let them wipe out our country or we defeat them,” he said. “And to be clear, we are not at war with the Palestinian people in Gaza. Our war is with Hamas. Nobody wants to kill an innocent civilian, an innocent woman, an innocent child – but if we have to fight a war, there are casualties. ”

Mendel, by far the youngest of the trio, said he feels strongly about the “horrible” injustice of innocent people dying.

“Wars shouldn’t happen, (Hamas) should not have started this and none of this would have happened,” he said. “And I don’t think that starting it justifies any civilians dying, but it’s a war and war is a horrible, brutal thing, but it’s either that or they would have massacred the rest of us with smiles on their faces.”

Most of all, he said he just wants the war to end. He said he misses his family, his mom especially.

“She is the best of all,” he said. “And she makes the best challah in the world,” he added, referring to the traditional Jewish braided bread served on special occasions.

Mendel has some two years left of his military service. Whether the war will end by the time he finishes is anyone’s guess.

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