Despite civilian casualties, Israelis solidly back Gaza war

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 15, 2009 

TEL AVIV, Israel — Israelis hear the outcry. They aren't blind to civilian deaths, to the destruction of homes and livelihoods or to mass suffering in the Gaza Strip.

However, Israelis support the war against Hamas by more than four to one. If you lived here, many say, you would too.

"People that have demonstrated against us all over the world, they don't live here. They don't know the reality here," said Samuel Balmas, a 41-year-old engineer, as he sipped mint tea Thursday on a placid, tree-lined boulevard in the seaside metropolis of Tel Aviv, 40 miles and a universe away from the devastation in Gaza.

Polls show that Jewish Israelis see the nearly three-week-old war as necessary and justified, despite nearly 1,100 deaths in Gaza — some 40 percent of them women and children — and massive destruction of Palestinian homes and property.

The public attitude here is that there's no peaceful way to deal with a foe such as Hamas, which doesn't recognize Israel's existence and whose fighters have fired thousands of crude rockets into southern Israeli towns over the past eight years. It extends to the country's newspapers, some of which admit that they've played down the civilian deaths among Palestinians out of bias.

In the face of worldwide criticism — apart from the United States, where the public squarely backs Israel, according to a recent McClatchy/Ipsos poll — Israelis are defiant. The independent newspaper Haaretz reported Thursday that 82 percent of Israelis surveyed said the country's military hadn't "gone too far" in its use of force in Gaza.

"They should have done this five years ago," said Oded Tadmor, a retired civil servant, studying a newspaper at a Tel Aviv cafe.

Not that he's unmoved by the deaths of Palestinian women and children, said Tadmor, who's 57. He noted, however, that Gazans had elected Hamas, a group that's known for using civilians as shields.

"I'm very glad that people make protests. They are free to do so. This is a democracy," he said. "But they (Gaza) also had a democratic election and chose Hamas. So if you ask me, everything is a legitimate target."

It's not unusual for a country to unite when it's under attack, as Americans will recall from 9/11. Israel also is a compact nation of only about 7 million people, where every household knows a soldier, and in many ways the war in Gaza feels like a national effort.

The Israeli news media, either mindful of their audience's bias or sharing it, has focused on the home front. Three Israeli civilians have been killed in rocket attacks since the war began, but even stories about rockets that caused no serious injuries routinely make the front pages and lead the evening newscasts.

"You can't compare by the number of people dying here and there," said Balmas, whose elderly father lives in southern Israel and has had rockets land within a few hundred yards of his house. "We didn't send bombs to them. They sent them to us first."

The plight of civilians in Gaza, while not ignored, usually is relegated to the back pages of newspapers. Few Israeli news organizations have Palestinian reporters in Gaza, so most rely on wire service accounts.

On Jan. 7, when news media around the world spotlighted the Israeli shelling of a U.N.-run school Jan. 6 in northern Gaza, in which about 40 people reportedly died, Israel's most popular daily newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, ran the story on page seven. On the front page that day was news of three Israeli soldiers who died in "friendly fire," the military's deadliest incident of the war.

"We're the same as the public; we've been biased on the Israeli side for much of the campaign," said Daniel Bettini, the paper's foreign editor, who said that some editors now regretted not giving the school attack greater prominence.

None of the major Israeli daily newspapers focused Thursday on another development that made headlines elsewhere in the world: nine Israeli human rights groups calling Wednesday for a war-crimes investigation into the Israeli military's "wanton use of lethal force" in Gaza. The groups said that Israeli forces had fired on ambulances and humanitarian vehicles and had failed to rescue civilians who were trapped in buildings.

Many Israelis think that such concerns can wait until the war is over, experts said.

"Right now everyone is concerned about one thing: ending the war in a way that southern Israel doesn't have to keep going into bomb shelters," said Gadi Wolfsfeld, a communications professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Emotions are far trickier for Israel's Arab minority, which makes up about 20 percent of the country's population. Pollsters say that most of the Israeli opposition to the war comes from the Arab community.

In Jaffa — a historic Arab port that Tel Aviv has swallowed but that still counts a sizable Arab population — residents said that the toll on Palestinians saddened them deeply.

"It makes me sick," said Malik Hamour, a 28-year-old juice vendor. "I don't like Hamas attacking Israel, and I don't like Israel attacking the Palestinian people."

Hamour is an Israeli by birth, however, and even he is playing his part in the war effort. He motioned to the back of his store, where a group of young Israeli soldiers sat sipping orange juice and milkshakes.

"Soldiers," he said, "get a discount."

(McClatchy special correspondent Cliff Churgin contributed to this article from Jerusalem.)

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