Ashkelon – The space for public debate in Israel has closed significantly during the two-week-old military offensive in Gaza. The media in Israel have gone on a war footing, with retired military men dominating the airwaves and corresponding sympathetic coverage in print. Dissenting voices have largely been pushed to the pages of Haaretz and online.
Within the government, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also found support – albeit temporary. Last week he was under intense pressure from the right wing of his coalition, particularly Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, to launch a ground invasion. He sacked Danny Danon, his deputy defence minister, because of his vocal criticism.
Since Thursday, though, Lieberman has gone quiet, save for a bland statement in support of the troops, as have the other hawkish members of the coalition.
There have been no major opinion polls yet on the war, but dozens of interviews over the past two weeks suggest that the public is broadly supportive, a sympathetic shift that is unsurprising in a country with mandatory conscription for most of its citizens. There has been no signs of dwindling support even after 13 Israeli soldiers were killed in a single day, the highest death toll in nearly a decade.
Analysts say it also reflects a growing sense of fear. Palestinian resistance groups have launched more than 1,000 rockets, most of them ineffective, since the Israeli assault on Gaza began two weeks ago. Just two people have been killed, and a handful seriously injured. But an attempted attack on Thursday, July 17, when 13 Palestinian fighters tried to sneak through a tunnel into Israel, helped secure public support for a ground invasion.
“What brought it home to the Israeli public, made them think, ‘We’re fighting for our home,’ was not so much the rockets,” said Yehuda Ben Meir, an analyst at the Institute for National Security Studies. “It was the story with the tunnels.”
Driving home that message, Netanyahu and his defence minister, Moshe Yaalon, mentioned the tunnels no less than 20 times in a press conference on Sunday night. Naftali Bennett, the economy minister and one-time Netanyahu critic, called the ground operation “a miracle” in an interview with Army Radio on Sunday. “A whole city of terror tunnels has been found,” he said.
It is only since last week, though, that the tunnels became a focus for Israeli officials. They were barely mentioned in the past – despite articles written by several journalists, including one a year ago by prominent intelligence reporter Yossi Melman, describing them as a threat.
Most of the Knesset, from the right to the centre-left, has rallied behind the military offensive. Criticism has come mostly from a handful of Palestinian members, who have been met with widespread hostility. During an interview on Channel 2 last week Mohammed Baraka was shouted down by Sharon Gal, a journalist, who accused him of “defending terrorists” and called him a spokesman for Hamas.
, they become irrational, totally irrational.”]
Hanin Zoabi, a favourite target for the right, was briefly arrested at a rally in Haifa on Friday. Lieberman called her political party Balad “a party of traitors”, and suggested that she be barred from running for office in the next election.
The vitriol directed at Zoabi, Barakeh, and others, is rarely applied to Jewish politicians who make incendiary statements. Ayelet Shaked, a prominent member of Bennett’s Jewish Home party, penned a status on Facebook earlier this month suggesting that Israel kill the mothers of Palestinian fighters, lest they give birth to more “little snakes”. There was no public outcry or official censure.
“When they are under fire, soldiers killed, rockets flying in the centre [of the country], they become irrational, totally irrational,” said Basel Ghattas, another Knesset member from Zoabi’s party.
Public criticism has come mostly from the relatively liberal enclaves of Tel Aviv and Haifa. But those voices are being drowned out in a society that has drifted steadily to the right over the past decade.
Knesset members have pursued laws to declare Israel a “Jewish state”, drive Palestinian parties out of politics and crack down on left-leaning NGOs. Opinion polls find that younger Jewish Israelis are increasingly right-wing and hold negative views of Palestinians.
The shift has turned very public this month, with anti-war demonstrators shouted down and in some cases even attacked.
Last weekend, a group of pro-war Israelis attacked a rally in Tel Aviv, beating participants while police idly watched. In a surreal twist, some of the Jewish attackers wore T-shirts popularised by neo-Nazi movements in Europe. Demonstrators have also been attacked in Haifa, Lod, and other cities. Ultranationalist groups have posted messages on Facebook urging their followers to target “leftists”.
The space for dissent is likely to shrink further as Israeli casualties mount. On Sunday, much of the world was focused on the heavy shelling of Shujayea, a neighbourhood in eastern Gaza, which killed at least 72 people.
Inside Israel, though, the violence was quickly overshadowed by reports that 27 soldiers had been killed in overnight fighting. Netanyahu still has not outlined any long-term strategy for the ground invasion, beyond destroying the tunnels, but there has been little public questioning of what seems to be an ever-widening campaign.
Quite the opposite: By all accounts, Netanyahu was reluctant to launch a ground invasion, and only approved it after widespread political and public pressure.
“We wanted this from the beginning, and it was Netanyahu who held back and talked about ceasefires,” said Yair Zulay, a resident of Ashkelon, a seaside city that has seen some of the heaviest rocket fire. “Now it should continue until Hamas is finished.”