Israelis are famously disputatious people. Though fights over politics or religion are features of almost every country, in Israel debate is taken to an art-form, part a result of Jewish tradition of questioning and argument, part stemming from the heated debates over what exactly Israel should stand for since its founding.
One measure of that is in frequent changes of government. Israel has had 18 changes of prime minister since its founding 1948. In that time, the UK has had 13 prime ministers and the US has had 12 presidents. That's why when there's near-unanimity among Israelis - as there is around the government's current offensive in Gaza - it's a sign that something may be shifting not just in Israeli politics, but in society at large.
It's hard to find criticism or questioning of the wisdom of the government's response to Hamas's rockets in Israel's media (aside from the pages of the left-leaning Haaretz). Those Israelis who do view the war - which has claimed over 1,700 Palestinian lives so far - as counterproductive, have little sway in a climate where raising criticism against the war can lead to furious accusations of treason.
“There is criticism, but this isn’t the time to talk about it,” says 59-year-old Adele Raener, of Kibbutz Nirim, a small, tight-knit community that she says has always sought peace with its Gazan neighbors just over a mile away.
According to a poll conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute, 95 percent of Israeli Jews say the campaign is justified and less than four percent say the army has used excessive force.
Over the past decade, as Israel has shifted rightwards, and the peace process has been (repeatedly) declared dead, Israelis have expressed overwhelming support “where it’s clearly defensive action against massive attacks,” says Prof. Yehuda Ben Meir, a public opinion expert at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). Support tapers off, though, as the battle drags on and the mission proves more complicated or deadly than expected, he says.
There's been no sign of that shift yet. Israel has lost 63 soldiers and 3 civilians in the latest round of fighting, and on Saturday Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted that his country will extract an "intolerable price" from Hamas if rocket fire continues from Gaza. But while Israel appears united behind him, the daily toll of civilian deaths is dealing blows to Israel's international reputation. An apparent Israeli strike on a UN shelter killed 10 people today, an event that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called a "moral outrage and a criminal act."
But many Israelis ask, what is international support against the security of millions of civilians currently within rocket range, and the southern Israeli towns vulnerable to Hamas infiltration via tunnels? The common view here is that international critics are naive, when not actively anti-Semitic, in their view of Israel's use of force as being out of proportion to the threat.
As for suggestions that lifting the economic blockade of Gaza would make the country more, not less, safe, most Israeli's scoff. Tzipi Livni, Israel's justice minister and chief negotiator with the Palestinians, told Ynet on Sunday that a peace agreement is a long way off. Compromise with Hamas? “You want to talk about lifting the blockade? Not with us, and not now,” she said.
The views of Matan Peleg, CEO of the ultra-Zionist NGO Im Tirzu, are commonly held and explain why there's so much support for the offensive.
A former soldier who saw combat during the Second Intifada, Mr. Peleg says face-to-face interaction with Palestinians has convinced him that “overall, Arab society sanctifies death. Standards of violence are normal in the Arab world – honor killings, killings of gays, abuse of women – things that in Israel we don’t understand at all.”
Most Israelis adopt the military’s narrative that Hamas is exploiting civilians as “human shields” and is therefore responsible for the steep civilian casualties.
“Why are these innocent people dying when we’re doing so much to avoid this? Because Hamas wants innocent civilians for their own propaganda, which they’re obviously doing very well,” says Eytan Meyersdorf, a 25-year-old political science student at Bar-Ilan University.
While voices of dissent have largely been muffled, right-wing extremists have circulated anti-Arab hate speech with impunity, serving to remind the public of the tragic events that sparked this current struggle – the kidnappings and murder of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank, followed up by the revenge kidnap and murder of a Palestinian teen by ultra-nationalists.
Last week the City Council of Or Yehuda, in central Israel, hung a banner that read, “IDF soldiers, the residents of Or Yehuda are with you! Pound 'their mothers’ and come home safely to yours.” In a pro-war demonstration in Tel Aviv, hundreds rejoiced in the death of Palestinian children, chanting, “There’s no school tomorrow, there are no children left in Gaza.”
Ben-Dror Yemini, an Israeli columnist for Yediot Ahronot, brushes off the far-right movement as “hooligans,” unrepresentative of an Israeli majority that fundamentally strives for a solution. He argues that Israelis have come to view Palestinians as manipulative and dishonest, leading to the belief that a lasting peace could only be forged by a leader like Netanyahu and a rightist administration.
“Most Israelis are not prepared for a Palestinian state, but a huge majority will follow a right-wing government because deep in their hearts they understand that (the two-state solution) will be the best way to solve the problem and keep the Jewish state Jewish and democratic,” says Mr. Yemini.
Last week, the depth of Israel’s scorn toward external interference unfolded when Israeli state broadcaster Channel 1 ran a “tense” – though, it turned out, faked - telephone conversation between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu. To Obama’s alleged arrogant indifference to Israel’s security concerns, Netanyahu rationally explained why his country must fight Hamas.
Such defensive tones are echoed even among Israel’s staunchest leftists.
Israeli novelist Amos Oz, a famous critic of the Israeli occupation and founder of “Peace Now,” explained in an interview with Germany's Deutsche Welle why he supports the war. "The only way to repel aggression is unfortunately by force,” he said.
“A relative of mine who survived the Nazi Holocaust in Theresienstadt always reminded her children and her grandchildren that her life was saved in 1945 not by peace demonstrators with placards and flowers but by Soviet soldiers and submachine guns,” he added.