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At war, Israeli reservists wield new weapon: opinion polls

Concerned about casualties, soldiers asked for a gauge of public sentiment, a powerful influence in this conflict.

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 16, 2006



METULLA, ISRAEL

To those on a family vacation and hard at work, the call came: Tzav 8, code name for the emergency mobilization order from the Israeli military.

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Soon, reservists found themselves on a Lebanese battlefield, at a disadvantage to Hizbullah guerrillas fighting on home turf. And in the midst of combat, they did what anyone wanting to influence decisionmakers here would do: get on their cellphones and commission an opinion poll.

And so, from somewhere south of the Litani River in Lebanon to the Tel Aviv headquarters of one of Israel's most prominent polling groups, a hyperdemocratic dynamic was put into play: Soldiers wielding the weapon of public opinion to try to influence how the war is being waged.

"We realize that we have to do something because it's a life-or-death situation, and so many soldiers were getting killed. We got upset, but we didn't know what to do," says Intelligence Corps Officer Shmuel Yannay, who has emerged as a kind of spokesman for the reservists – some of whom asked to have their identities withheld – who contacted the Dahaf Institute a week ago and commissioned the poll on the direction of the war.

"It's the first time ever it's been done, and I think it's a new tool," he says. "It's not refusal of orders or officers. If you do that, you abandon your friends in the field," explains Mr. Yannay, talking in a phone interview days before his next military assignment. Although he didn't get sent to Lebanon, he'd done perilous duty in Gaza, and recently got his call-up for service that will take him away from his day job – a lawyer for an investment club. "We tried to find an alternative way to put pressure on the political process," he says, and "to pressure the prime minister" to reconsider the course of the war.

Not, that is, the war itself. Israel went to war hours after Hizbullah's July 12 attack on Israeli soldiers, killing eight of them and kidnapping two others. Public opinion sat squarely behind that decision. But as the casualty count climbed, support for the war – and more specifically, its handling – declined. A poll released on Tuesday by a different group, Globes-Smith, found that 52 percent of the public believes the IDF did not succeed in the war, while 44 percent think it did.

The question the reservists posed was of a more tactical nature. The soldiers felt they were being sent into Lebanese villages like so much cannon fodder, and wondered why the Israeli military wasn't first calling in airstrikes on houses that were confirmed Hizbullah hide-outs.

"It's not supposed to be a moral dispute. There weren't any villagers left there at that point, just Hizbullah men," says Yannay. The soldiers began to question the wisdom of their orders.

"The answers they got didn't satisfy them. They were told that world public opinion wouldn't tolerate it," he says. "We got into this war, they told us, to prove to Hamas and Hizbullah that the blood of our soldiers doesn't come for free. But we proved in the war the very opposite thing: The blood of the soldiers seems less important than public opinion."

In the poll, published in the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper on Friday, 91 percent of respondents – all civilians – said that the IDF should bomb villages from the air, while 8 percent said they should depend on ground forces. The poll was on the verge of swaying the war's execution when news of a cease-fire deal broke.

The wisdom of any one particular war strategy can be capricious. At first, many Israelis criticized the army for relying too heavily on air bombardments, particularly after the bombing in Qana, which killed 27. The strategy shifted to ground troops, and soldier casualties began to skyrocket. On Saturday alone, 24 Israeli troops were killed, and 115 overall died in the fighting.

As reserve soldiers began pouring back back into Israel, many through this border town, some looked jubilant, others bitter. A famous entertainer played for troops, cracking jokes about how leaders seemed to create a domestic refugee crisis every summer – a jab at disengagement from Gaza last year and the recent exodus of civilians here. He got rousing applause and a few boos.

Many Israelis have called for a commission of inquiry. Newspapers have carried investigative stories about the army. The Maariv newspaper carried an article indicating that the chief of staff took his shares out of the stock market on the day of the July 12 attack by Hizbullah, while a Jerusalem Post report indicated that some soldier deaths appeared to be the result of a friendly-fire incident.

The common thread through many of these stories is the complex overlap of technology and democracy on the battlefield. Never before have so many Israeli soldiers had the ability to be in touch with friends and family back home.

But calling home from the front to commission a poll, one analyst says, is an unprecedented example of the keen understanding of how influential public perceptions in wartime have become.

"The polls can create a climate of opinion," says Raphael Ventura, an expert at the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem. "Polls can enhance the legitimacy of views that were considered unorthodox. When people believe that they are holding opinions outside the consensus, they hide these opinions. But if they see polls, they're more likely to express these opinions openly."

"We saw it in Vietnam and in Bosnia," he adds. "The more you had negative reports in the media, showing that mistakes are being made ... people begin to think maybe the war is not going so well," he says.

Though the poll was instigated by those at war, an army spokeswoman says that it was commissioned by private individuals, which includes off-duty reservists. "Any reserve officer is a private citizen," the officer says, "and can say whatever he wants to say – until he's in uniform again."

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