NEAR THE ISRAEL-LEBANON BORDER—Rafael Ezra's artillery is pounding unseen targets miles away with blast after deafening blast. But the 21-year-old Israeli soldier isn't too concerned about whether the shells are killing Hezbollah fighters or innocent civilians.
"Most of the people killed in Lebanon lived in Hezbollah neighborhoods," Ezra said while getting his hair shaved and listening to Arabic music as shells soared over a nearby hillside. "So I think they need to choose better where they live. People should know better."
In the two weeks since Hezbollah sparked the clash by kidnapping two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border ambush, Israeli retaliation has killed hundreds of civilians and sparked mounting international criticism.
Few Israelis, however, are shedding many tears for the civilians dying in Lebanon or wondering whether their country's tactics might make it harder rather than easier to reach a peace that would last longer than a few weeks or months.
The latest conflict with Hezbollah has united Israel in a way that the fight against Palestinian militants never has. After two weeks of battles that have killed 33 Israeli soldiers, public support for the military action remains above 80 percent. Although there has been some hand-wringing about the amount of force Israel has used, three-quarters of Israelis in one recent poll urged their country to go further.
"I am prepared to hail down hellfire on the Hezbollah terrorists, their aides, their collaborators, all those who turn a blind eye to them, and everyone who so much as smells of Hezbollah—and their innocent bystanders can die instead of ours," Rafi Ginat, the editor of Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel's largest newspaper, wrote in Friday's edition. "We are in the middle of a war, and we have to win this war by trampling on Hezbollah underfoot and everything it represents. We have to strike hard—and we can allow ourselves to feel good about it."
The sense of determination stems from a widespread belief in Israel that the stakes in this conflict are clear. While many Israelis oppose the military steps their nation uses to maintain its control over millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, they consider Hezbollah the vanguard of a broader war by Syria and Iran, the group's main backers, to destroy Israel.
"We are fighting for our survival," said Minah Tsemach, one of Israel's leading pollsters. "Israel feels that this time there is no other motive than Israel's existence."
Israeli leaders say they're targeting Hezbollah bases, homes hiding rockets and roads used by the militant group. Israeli planes have dropped thousands of leaflets urging people to leave areas that Israel plans to bomb.
There has been rising criticism, however, of strikes on targets that had no connection to Hezbollah.
Earlier this week, an Israeli airstrike hit a United Nations base, killing four unarmed peacekeepers. Eight Canadian citizens were killed last week as they tried to escape the attacks. Dozens of Lebanese citizens have been killed when Israeli planes hit convoys of civilians heeding Israeli warnings for them to leave their homes.
Israeli officials generally say they're sorry after such attacks. But their statements usually come with a "but."
"We will avoid harming innocent civilians, but we will look for Hezbollah members everywhere," said Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who recently complained that the world was getting a "distorted picture in which the victim is portrayed as the aggressor."
The continued attacks, however, have put a minor dent in American public support for Israel. A recent Gallup Poll found that a large majority of Americans back Israel's military campaign against Hezbollah, although half of those polled thought Israel had gone too far.
Lydia Saad, a senior editor at The Gallup Poll, said the number of civilians killed by the Israeli attacks appeared to be a main reason for that reaction.
But if civilian casualties continue to mount, said Shibley Telhami, a fellow at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Israel risks losing international backing and further destabilizing the Middle East by undermining the fragile young Lebanese government it says it's trying to shore up.
"I think the tide is beginning to shift a little bit, not in terms of the moral position, but in terms of the kind of worry that the goals may not be achievable and the consequence may be hugely damaging," said Telhami, who also serves as the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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