Israeli mood turns more hostile

Smarting from media criticism and foreign pressure, Israelis slide into old isolationist attitudes.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Condemned around the world for their army's often brutal assault on the Palestinian territories, Israelis are retreating into a resentful mistrust of outsiders that threatens only to deepen their country's international isolation.

The Israeli government's decision to block a United Nations team from investigating allegations of a massacre at the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank reflects an increasingly bitter feeling that a hostile world is bound to judge Israel unfairly.

"Events are taking us back into a very tribal atmosphere, a closed one where people feel we are fighting for the survival of the state of Israel," says author Tom Segev. "We are going back to a period that we had left behind."

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"Israelis feel completely misperceived by the international community ... largely as a consequence of what is considered here to be appalling media coverage," adds David Horovitz, editor of the weekly Jerusalem Report.

Cowering in the face of repeated suicide bomb attacks that provoked Israel's invasion of Palestinian-ruled areas of the West Bank, ordinary Israelis have sought comfort in a sense of unity against a hostile world.

Encouraging that trend have been senior government officials, including Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who claimed recently that he was waging a war for the survival of the Jewish people.

Though few would go that far, "we are frightened and closed in on ourselves, and in an atmosphere like that it is natural to feel the whole world is against us," suggests Mr. Segev. "It easily brings up old memories" of the persecution Jews have suffered in the past.

The mood of defensiveness that has descended on the country can be seen in the media, say analysts here, as editors rally round. Two weeks ago, for example, a reporter for Army Radio was fired after interviewing an Israeli Arab novelist who had said he could not understand how Israelis could celebrate their Independence Day in light of what their army was doing to Palestinian towns.

The United Nations has borne the brunt of this new mood, especially since special UN envoy Terje Roed Larsen described the scene at Jenin after the Israeli withdrawal as "horrific beyond belief" and said the humanitarian situation there was "morally repugnant."

UN officials say they are routinely insulted by Israelis who recognize their marked cars, and have reported incidents in which Israeli soldiers have taken potshots at their vehicles.

But Israel is also smarting from criticism from Europe, where the European Parliament has called for trade sanctions against the Jewish state. Even the United States, Israel's staunchest ally, has pressured Mr. Sharon to pull his troops out of the West Bank and lift the siege of Yasser Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah.

All this is a far cry from the day 10 years ago when former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin introduced his new government to Israel's Knesset (parliament) in 1992, saying "no longer are we necessarily a 'people that dwells alone,' and no longer is it true that 'the whole world is against us.' We must overcome the sense of isolation that has held us in its thrall for almost half a century."

The Oslo peace process between Israel and the Palestinians that flowered under Rabin's rule (he was assassinated in 1995) encouraged a more open and relaxed mood amongst Israelis.

The prospects for peace, in which many Israelis believed, led to a more normal, recognizably American style of life, recalls Segev, who chronicles the development in his new book "Elvis in Jerusalem." In what he calls the "post-Zionist" phase of Israel's short history, Israelis became more individualistic, living life for itself rather than for an ideology, or the nation.

It even became acceptable to find ways of avoiding army service – hitherto a sacred rite of passage into Israeli adulthood. A growing sense of security prompted young people to put a higher priority on pursuing their own dreams than on serving the military.

In sharp contrast to those days in the mid-1990s, the army found this month that more reservists than it needed answered its emergency call-up for duty during the Defensive Shield operation in the West Bank.

At the same time, the social divisions that cleave Israeli society, between Ashkenazi Jews of European origin and their Sephardi cousins from North Africa, between religious and secular Jews, have melted away, for the time being, in the face of terror attacks.

"All those issues have been marginalized," says Mr. Horovitz. "All Israelis talk about now is trying to get through the day safely and defending the country."

Even among left-wing Israelis, once the most ardent proponents of peaceful coexistence with the Palestinians, the idea of their two peoples living cooperatively has fallen by the wayside. In its place has arisen a vision of "separation," articulated by former prime minister Ehud Barak, whereby Palestinians would live in their state next door to Israel, but be denied entry to Israel.

Israelis' fear of suicide bombers – who are widely expected to return to Israeli streets in the coming weeks – "has pushed us back in time, back into the Zionist womb," says Segev. If and when the violence ebbs, however, he hopes Israelis will rediscover the attitudes they were cultivating in recent years.

"We were on our way to becoming a nice and decent society, and it is too early to know if what we are seeing now is a momentary reaction," he says. "I am not sure that the present withdrawal into the past reflects the deeper reality."

Horovitz, however, is more dubious. "It will take a long time for Israelis to become trustful again," he warns.

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