“War, Insatiable, Never Satisfied”: Notes from the Israeli Home Front

By Elad Giladi

I put on my writer’s hat and start writing: “It was the third day of a never-ending stakeout. The supply line did not reach this part of the city, and food was beginning to run low. Water was scarce too, since the team accidentally blew up the house’s water tanks as they entered the building and had to do only with the water they carried in their bags. The room is relatively quiet. Sounds of heavy breathing and light chewing. The world outside the building is mired in wreckage and tense silence. Suddenly, they hear a dog barking. Then another one. A few more join in. A pack of dogs is now barking just outside their building. Thirteen soldiers think the same thought, but only one says it out loud – ‘Our location has been compromised.’ The team leader, the sharpshooters, and the rest of the team cannot detect any movement in the streets surrounding the building. The dog pack is running up and down the road underneath the northwestern corner of the building where the stakeout takes place. All of a sudden, they stop in front of the building across the street and start barking like crazy. ‘They are not barking at us,’ says the team leader. It takes him a few seconds to adjust the focus of his binoculars. ‘Up there! On the roof,’ he directs the team's attention, ‘Monkeys!!’ His helmet camera now documents a small family of gold-coated, white-breasted baboons – a father, a mother, and a little baby hanging by his mother’s neck – crossing the roof and jumping gracefully to the next building. The father rushes the mother inside as he stays on the window ledge and throws stones at the barking dogs downstairs…”

This surreal story is not symbolic or allegoric. It is true.  It was told to me by the team leader himself when he was finally discharged from reserve duty and came back home after more than 100 days of fighting in Gaza. He even showed me the footage. The team leader is also a journalist, a husband, a father of two young children, and my brother-in-law. We sat on the balcony of his apartment in Tel Aviv, only a few hours’ drive from Gaza. When he told me the story, he took off his warrior helmet to put on his documentarist’s hat for a while. Now his helmet is back on. He told me that as we sat there and drank our coffee on the balcony, he was thinking about the best place to locate his sharpshooters… Across the street, above the entrance to the playground, his eyes found a security camera, and his hand instinctively reached for his phantom rifle to shoot it down. These cameras in Gaza, he said, usually trigger IEDs… When the sun had set, he felt more relaxed. Even in Gaza, no fighting usually takes place at night. Now it was time for him to go inside and put on the father’s hat – the kids needed to be fed and bathed. I bid him farewell and headed home.

On the road, driving my car, I think that one must put on many different hats in order to deal with the oxymoronic relationship between life and war, which has been an integral part of life in Israel since 1948 and has sharpened very much during the current war that was forced upon us on October 7, 2023. It is the longest war in the history of Israel (so far), and it is taking place in Gaza and on the home front. When the Hamas surprise attack began that day at 6:29 in the morning, I was the only one at the house to wake up from the sound of the alarm sirens. I woke my wife and kids up, and we ran to the secure room. As we sat there, my wife turned to me, inquiring about the timing of this attack. I put on my Middle East researcher’s hat and explained that it was probably an attempt to undermine Israel’s normalization with the Arab world and further elaborated on Hamas’ motivations to carry out such an attack. But soon, I had to put on the father’s hat as I was trying to calm down my daughter, who started crying from the sirens and the shelling that would not stop. My wife told her it’s like in the movies – the good guys always triumph over the bad guys. “The problem is,” said my 9-year-old son, “that for us, the Palestinians are the bad guys, but for them we are the bad guys.” Jewish sage Hillel (died c. 8 AD) was approached one day by a Roman who said he would like to convert to Judaism on the condition that he be taught the entire Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel said: “That which is hateful unto you, do not do unto your friend; the rest [of the Torah] is commentary, go and learn.” Like Hillel, my son managed to sum up the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on one foot.

As hours turned into days, Israel started to realize the magnitude of the disaster that befell it on the Black Sabbath of October 7th. Friends from Germany and former colleagues from ZMO text to see if we are all right and to sympathize with us. I don’t know what to tell them. I reassure them that we are fine, given the circumstances, and that things are relatively calm in the center of Israel, but I feel that I am not getting through. On the one hand, I don’t want to alarm or burden them. On the other hand, I do want them to know that “normal” and “relatively calm” here means that we are constantly under the threat of rockets from Gaza; that whenever we leave our house, we have to make sure that we can run for shelter within one minute when the alarm sirens go off; that a rocket fell the other day just a few blocks from our house, hitting my usual running route, when my kids were in a nearby playground. Berlin seems like a distant memory right now, even though we left it only two months before the October 7th attack. My daughter asked me where the safe room was in the apartment we rented in Berlin and was amazed to discover that we didn’t have one and, in fact, there is no such thing in Berlin since they do not live under constant rocket threat. “Would you like to go back to live in Berlin?” I asked her. I am still waiting for her answer... I also found myself baffled when asked the same question by my friends. I love my country, with all its complexities. Do I feel safe here? Not so much anymore. The concept that Israel is the safest place in the world for Jews was one of the main concepts that was seriously shaken on October 7th

We are at home with the kids, trying to shelter them from the chaos outside. One ear is listening to the horrifying news that keeps coming, and the other is trying to stay attentive to your loved ones. On one of the first nights, as my kids slept in the safe room, I sat beside them and listened to the news on my earphones. As the news talked about the unbelievable numbers of Israelis killed in the massacre of October 7th, including seven children around the same age as mine and other children kidnapped to Gaza, I couldn’t help but feel pressure in my chest accompanied by an overwhelming love for my family. I put on my poet’s hat, but as I tried to turn these feelings into words, my mind kept wandering to Yehuda Amichai (1924 – 2000), one of Israel’s most beloved and celebrated poets. Amichai’s poetry captured most accurately and beautifully the complex duality of love and war in Israeli existence. A line from one of his famous poems circulated in the previous days: “War, insatiable, never satisfied.” Amichai, who fought in the 1948 war, wrote the poem in 1952, but it returned to the Israeli collective consciousness after it was set to music and then sung by Israeli singer Chava Alberstein following the 1973 war. Its current “comeback” highlights the common notion that wars in Israel are one never-ending war. However, taken out of context, it misses the bigger picture. The soldier, returning home, wishes for some love and comfort as he leaves the war behind (even for a short while). Love serves as refuge and shelter from the war:


"Will you come to me tonight?

Laundry's done drying in the yard's fading light.

War, insatiable, never satisfied,

now resides in a place far and wide…"[1]


Throughout Amichai’s poetic corpus, war and love are forever intertwined. The significance of the connection between war and love is especially poignant in the Israeli context, where men and women face both experiences in their formative years. War encompasses the collective and the private, while love is essentially private. Amichai’s poetic agility in moving from the collective to the private is perhaps one of the reasons for his unique status in Israeli culture.[2]  In addition, the trauma of the combat in the 1948 war left permanent scars on Amichai’s being and formed his future anti-war and anti-heroic attitudes, thus making him the quintessential poetic voice against war. The line “I want to die in my own bed” served as a banner for an entire generation of Israelis weary of war.[3]

A few days ago, twenty-one reserve soldiers were killed in Gaza: men my age, young fathers like me. Watching the funerals on television, I felt the urge to put on the poet’s hat again, but when the cannons roar, the muses are silent. So, I turned once more to Amichai. I remembered reading an interview where he spoke about parents whose son died in the army, and only a few years later, they dared to open his room. When they did, they saw one of Amichai’s books on his desk and realized it was the last thing he read before he died. The mother consulted Amichai about which poem from this book she should read in her son’s memorial service, and he answered without hesitation:


"And the land is divided into districts of memory and regions of hope,

and its inhabitants blend with each other,

like people returning from a wedding with those returning from a funeral.


And the land is not divided into war zones and peace zones.

And he who digs a hole against shells,

will come back and lie there with his girl,

if he shall live to see peace..."[4]


The funerals go on. Overflowed by grief and guilt, I put on my writer’s hat and start writing…            


[1] Yehuda Amichai  “Shir leyl Shabbat” [Poem for Sabbath Eve], In: Shirei Yehuda Amichai [Poems of Yehuda Amichai], Vol. 1 (Jerusalem: Schocken, 2002), p. 111 (my translation).

[2] Nili R. Scharf Gold, “Notes on Love and War in the Life of Yehuda Amichai,” Israel Studies Forum 19.1 (Fall, 2003), pp. 57-71.

[3] Dan Miron, Mul ha’ach hashotek: iyunim beshirat milchemet ha’atzma’ut [Facing the Silent Brother: Essays on the Poetry of the War of Independence] (Jerusalem: Keter and the Open University, 1992), pp. 271-313. For the poem, see Yehuda Amichai, Shirim [Poems] 1948-1962 (Jerusalem and Tel Aviv: Shocken, 1976), p. 95. For the poem translated into English, see Robert Alter (ed.), The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015), p. 34; and also: https://www.best-poems.net/yehuda_amichai/i_want_to_die_in_my_own_bed.html 

[4] Yehuda Amichai,  “Ahavat ha’aretz” [Love of the Land], In Shalva gedola: she’elot u’teshuvot [Great Tranquility: Answers and Questions] (Jerusalem and Tel Aviv: Shocken, 1980), p. 97 (my translation).