Dissent is quieted with most Israelis behind Gaza war

Those arguing for peace are being shouted down in a way rarely seen in a country long proud of its spirited, democratic debate

In this file photo taken Saturday, July 19, 2014, an Israeli right-wing activist waves the Israeli flag in support of Israel's operation in Gaza, during a demonstration in Tel Aviv, Israel. (Photo credit: AP/Oded Balilty)
In this file photo taken Saturday, July 19, 2014, an Israeli right-wing activist waves the Israeli flag in support of Israel's operation in Gaza, during a demonstration in Tel Aviv, Israel. (Photo credit: AP/Oded Balilty)

AP — Despite Israeli casualties and world criticism, a near-consensus in Israel supports the government’s conduct of the Gaza war, views Hamas as the aggressor and considers outsiders’ moralizing as hypocritical, ignorant or both. And in an echo-chamber fed by ubiquitous updates on Hamas rocket and tunnel attacks, the minority of local voices that do agonize over Gazans’ suffering are being silenced in a way rarely seen in a country long proud of its spirited, democratic debate.

A series of recent opinion polls have shown robust support for the war, reflecting years of frustration over rocket fire from Gaza and a new fear of Hamas’ network of tunnels that stretch well into Israel and imperil communities along the border. Opposing views, coming primarily from leftist activists and intellectuals, have been met with threats, insults and charges of treason both in social media and face-to-face.

“We are faced with the false, anti-democratic equation that argues that aggression, racism and lack of empathy means love of the homeland,” wrote Israeli author Etgar Keret in the Yediot Ahronot newspaper. Opinions that do not encourage “the use of power,” he added, are derided as “nothing less than an attempt to destroy and annihilate Israel as we know it.”

“They want to kill us. We have no choice,” said 39-year-old Jerusalemite Gil Yair, referring to Hamas. “They are holding a gun to our head and we have to take control of the situation.”

More than 1,300 Palestinians have been killed in the fighting since July 8, according to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry, hundreds of them Hamas gunmen. On the Israeli side, 56 soldiers have been killed as well as three civilians — including 11 soldiers killed by Hamas gunmen emerging from the terror tunnels dug under the Israeli border. Several polls this week have shown strong majorities in Israel supporting the war and prepared to go on.

It all stands in stark contrast to the deep divisions over most issues here — from the large questions of peace with the Palestinians to economic policy and the role of religion in public life. The deep schisms can bedevil policymaking and create bad karma, but they are also a source of satisfaction over how genuine a democracy Jews have built under difficult conditions in the harsh Middle East.

A number of anti-war protests held in Israel’s liberal hub, Tel Aviv, have been met by hard-line counter-protesters, who pelted insults and shouted calls for the doves to leave for Gaza. One such demonstration, ironically, had to dispersed by police amid a new salvo of Hamas rocket fire. A popular comedian who expressed sympathy for Gazan women and children was unceremoniously dropped from a cruise line’s ad campaign. And a public service announcement created by an activist group was rejected by Israel’s state-owned broadcaster, even though the group was paying for the airtime.

In the ad by the group B’Tselem, a solemn voice reads the names and ages of Palestinian children who were killed in the war. Hagai El-Ad, B’Tselem’s director, said it was meant to “re-humanize” Palestinians in the eyes of Israelis. He said the ad was rejected because it was deemed controversial. “We are living in such an atmosphere where the Israel Broadcasting Authority feels it needs to block even something as straightforward as saying the names of Palestinian children who were killed in Gaza,” El-Ad said. “That’s extreme.”

The broadcasting authority could not be reached for comment. B’Tselem has in the meantime uploaded the video to YouTube and is appealing the broadcaster’s decision in the Supreme Court.

One blogger named Aric Doron addressed the critics in this way: “I recommend (they) go and live in Gaza! If they are killed unintentionally we promise to read their names.”

The vast support for the war can be attributed to the tunnel threat, the extent of which — some 30 deep tunnels — has spooked Israelis, and the veritable exasperation with continued rocket fire. It began in 2001 or so with minor projectiles aimed at the sparsely populated border area; now millions of people including those in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are facing serious missiles.

Tellingly, even the leftist opposition by and large supports the war and has not complained too loudly about tactics that have led to the deaths of Palestinian civilians. Tzipi Livni, the cabinet’s leading dove, recently put it this way: “This is the time for us to unite around the understanding that terror must be fought. This is a tough war, but a necessary one.”

In a country where military service is mandatory, Israelis have rallied around the young soldiers fighting in Gaza. The deaths of those in uniform is considered just as tragic as those of civilians, and the media have extensively covered heartbreaking scenes from the funerals of young servicemen.

Israeli reporters — who are prevented by law from entering Gaza for fear of their abduction — have not focused as much as outside media on the suffering of Gazans. Although such suffering is mentioned and foreign agency video is broadcast, it is less prominent than in foreign accounts of the situation.

The official narrative — that terrorists are hiding among Palestinian civilians and therefore are to blame — is accepted virtually without question. While there is little doubt that Hamas does fire rockets from some built-up areas, Israeli military spokesman have not responded to repeated Associated Press requests to explain precisely why any given building — among the hundreds destroyed — was hit.

In three consecutive surveys, the Israel Democracy Institute, a nonpartisan think-tank, found that 95 percent of Israeli Jews considered Operation Protective Edge to be justified; less than 4 percent believed the military was using excessive firepower. The poll surveyed a combined 647 people; the institute did not provide a margin of error because of results were a combination of three different surveys.

Veteran Israeli pollster Mina Zemach said her research has shown similar trends, with 86 percent of Jewish Israelis supporting the war. Of those she found 57 percent saying Israel should carry on fighting until it destroys all the Hamas tunnels and eliminates its ability to fire rockets, 18 percent said it must go on until Hamas is toppled and 23 percent said Gaza must be reoccupied as well.

Her Midgam surveys polled 300 Israelis. She said some surveys had a margin of error of 3 percentage points and others as high as 5.6 percentage points. In 40 years as a pollster, she said she hasn’t seen such consensus in the Israeli public since the 1982 Lebanon war. She said she noticed the shift after the first Hamas tunnel attack hours before Israel launched its ground offensive on July 17. “People started to realize that we were living next to a volcano and that we couldn’t go on like this,” she said.

Tom Segev, an Israeli historian, said Israel’s typically fragmented society unites in times of war and freedom of expression is usually the first victim.

“There is an accepted norm in Israel that goes ‘when the cannons open fire, the people shut up,'” he said.

That situation is probably exacerbated by the ubiquity of any war in today’s connected world. There are now numerous competing broadcast channels as opposed to in the past, and the war dominates the waves. On mobile phones, every hour brings new updates, buzzing and vibrating, of rockets attacks wherever they may be. That is what the media assumes the market wants to receive, but it feeds upon itself, amplified by social media. People speak of little else, and a national sense grows deeper that Israel is alone, needing to circle the wagons, and sadly misunderstood.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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