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In Israel, support for the war soars

Grief over the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas has given way to euphoria over the advance of troops in Gaza. Polls show that 57% of the Jewish majority see the military force used in the first weeks of bombing as insufficient

ISRAEL-HAMAS WAR
A woman under an Israeli flag during a ceremony commemorating the victims of the Hamas attack at Kibbutz Gezer.RONEN ZVULUN (REUTERS)

Israel has a new soundtrack. On radios, inside bars and stores, Harbu Darbu is constantly playing. The powerful hip hop song has climbed to number one in the country on Spotify and on YouTube since its launch on November 14. The lyrics talk about writing names on the missiles that the army launches against Gaza and about killing “Abu Baklava” (a generic mockery of Arab names) and the models Bella Hadid and Mia Khalifa as well as the singer Dua Lipa for showing solidarity with Palestine. “All the IDF units are coming to ‘Charbu Darbu’ on your heads, oy oy,” is one of the verses with which the duo Ness and Stilla have connected with the prevailing mood in the country, in which the trauma and pain from the massive attack by Hamas on October 7 is interspersed with a general euphoria caused by the advance of Israeli troops in Gaza.

The latest Peace Index, a survey conducted by Tel Aviv University, asked at the end of October, at the beginning the ground invasion of Gaza after three weeks of massive bombings: “How would you define the use the Israeli army has made of its firepower in Gaza?” Some 57.5% of respondents among the Jewish majority (80% of the population) answered “too little”; 36.6%, “appropriate;” and 1.8%, “excessive.”

Another survey, the Israeli Voice Index produced by the Israel Democracy Institute think tank, points in the same direction. The most recent, released on December 5, showed 87% support for resuming the offensive in Gaza after the week of ceasefire in the last seven days of November. The differences by ideological affiliation were smaller: 74% among those who define themselves as left-wing; 84% from the center, and 93% from the right. Only a small minority of Jews supported shifting to a different form of combat in order to reduce Palestinian civilian casualties and minimize international pressure.

“There is a broad consensus that we must continue until the end, win the war, and then go to elections. Everyone has their own image in their head of what the photo of victory would look like, but they all have in common that Hamas cannot continue controlling Gaza,” said Uriel Abulof, an associate professor of political science at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor at Cornell University and author of the essay The Mortality and Morality of Nations. Abulof points out that, in addition to the fact that “Israelis do not see the same images of what is happening in Gaza as does the rest of the world,” the vast majority consider the number of civilian victims “bearable” given the importance they award to the mission, compared to “a small minority who are happy to see them.”

The differences are more marked around the famous “day after.” According to a November survey by the newspaper Maariv, 44% want Israel to maintain control of the Gaza Strip; 22% only want Israel to handle security matters; and another 22% want to rebuild the settlements that were dismantled in 2005, when Ariel Sharon’s government unilaterally decided to remove all soldiers and settlers. Five years earlier, Israel had withdrawn its troops from southern Lebanon. It is now the great stronghold of Hezbollah, the militia that Iran has helped to build an arsenal much more powerful than that of Hamas. The two cases are the reason why so many Israelis today feel that territorial withdrawals endanger their country. And why — within the distinction that is made at the domestic level between chosen and inevitable wars — practically no one doubts which of the two this one is.

The other part of the context — the 57 years of military occupation of the Palestinian territories, with almost two decades of blockade and offensives every few years in Gaza to “cut the grass” — is instead disdained, ignored or ridiculed, as evidenced by the criticism that rained down on the United Nations Secretary General, António Guterres, for mentioning it, or the memes that show the murder of a Jew in front of a Nazi mass grave accompanied by the phrase: “It depends on the context.”

The overwhelming support for the Gaza invasion does not extend to the government. In the Tel Aviv University survey, 53.2% of respondents described Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s management of the war as poor, and 56.3% described the executive’s management of the war as poor. According to a survey published on Friday by the newspaper Maariv, the parties that made up the executive (Netanyahu’s Likud, ultra-nationalists and ultra-Orthodox) until the formation of a unity government in late October would only obtain 44 of the 120 seats in the Knesset if an election were held tomorrow. They achieved 64 at the last election in November 2022. At an election tomorrow, National Unity, the party of Benny Gantz — who has joined the unity government and participates in news conferences alongside Netanyahu and the Minister of Defense, Yoav Gallant ― would take almost a third of parliament with 38 seats. Asked who is best suited to be the prime minister, 51% chose Gantz, and 31% chose Netanyahu.

Military insignia

The change in the mood among the population is visible. Kadosh, a café that is an institution in Jerusalem, where it has just moved to a larger location due to the lines that always formed outside the door, has released a special collection of pastries with the insignia and colors of the different military units fighting these days in Gaza. The small chocolate delivered with each cup of coffee by the main coffee chain, Aroma, is now wrapped in the national flag. With 360,000 reservists mobilized, in addition to the professional members of the army and a mandatory military service of between two and three years for about 70% of the population, there are few Jews in Israel who do not fear for the life of a son, a father, a grandson or a nephew, either in Gaza or on the borders with Lebanon and Syria.

The presence everywhere of people in uniform contrasts with the invisibility of the Palestinians, except when they fight the troops. The deaths in Gaza are approaching 18,000, 70% of them women and minors, according to data from Gaza health authorities that Israel and U.S. President Joe Biden no longer openly question. These figures hardly appear in the news; one summary of two months of war on Channel 12 concluded with the phrase: “It’s either us or them.” Journalists themselves often use “we” or “our forces” when talking about military actions. A famous TV host was outraged last week by the criticism uttered by “that Spaniard,” alluding to Spain’s prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, who visited Jerusalem, Ramallah and Cairo in late November and said that the number of deaths occurring in Gaza was “truly unbearable.”

Israeli soldiers on December 1 in Jerusalem.
Israeli soldiers on December 1 in Jerusalem. AMMAR AWAD (REUTERS)

The narrative of what is happening in Gaza usually comes from the so-called military correspondents, who relay the information that the army provides them with. On October 31, when an airstrike left several huge craters in the Jabaliya refugee camp and Arab channels showed people removing children’s corpses from the rubble, Israeli public television simply reported on the “elimination” of a commander of the armed wing of Hamas. Sometimes the phrase “Palestinians report several deaths” was added.

In times of war, patriotism is high. The country’s main satirical program, Eretz Nehederet, has ridiculed the BBC’s coverage with a fictitious interview with the leader of Hamas in Gaza, Yahia Sinwar, in which he regrets that the world is not mobilizing because the crying of a hostage baby prevents him from sleeping, or because the forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians is depriving him of human shields. It concludes with archival footage from World War II mocking how the “heartless” British prime minister, Winston Churchill, “rejected a ceasefire and continued his genocidal attack” on Germany.

The brutality of the Hamas attack, with some 1,200 dead (mainly civilians killed in their homes and at a music festival) has awakened the collective trauma of the Holocaust. Although there are hardly any survivors and the extermination of six million Jews is not part of the personal or family legacy of half of Israelis today, the stories of defenseless people hidden in rooms, charred corpses inside their homes or young people hiding in the bushes on October 7 bring up collective thoughts of the Holocaust.

This feeling of insecurity has given way to another key concept: Israel, created three years after the Holocaust, is the guarantee of the famous slogan “Never again.” The Jews whose ancestors were gassed during World War II, unable to defend themselves, today have a state of their own and a powerful army that does not accept lessons from the world. This is a thought that the blogger Avi Weiss expresses in his latest article in the newspaper The Times of Israel, titled “Dear world: I don’t care”: “I don’t care if you’re out on the street, waving your flag and chanting your slogans. We won’t die silently the way you want us to. For the first time in 2,000 years we are organized, we are motivated and we will defend ourselves.”

Although accentuated by the dimension of October 7, the phenomenon is not new. In the 2014 offensive, the deadliest in Gaza to date, less than 4% of Jewish Israelis thought the army was using excessive force. Six years earlier, during Operation Cast Lead, which left more than 1,400 Palestinians dead, the most widely circulated newspaper, Yediot Aharonot, had on its cover the death of an army dog by a Palestinian rocket.

What is new is the vagueness of the “they,” as in the trending song, in whose video the singer mentions among those who must die the generic Abu Baklava or those who “supported” the Hamas attack. “When it is said that Hamas must be eliminated, it also means those who sing, support them or distribute sweets [in celebration of the attacks]. All of these are terrorists and must be eliminated,” said the Minister of National Security, the far-right Itamar Ben Gvir, in a television interview.

Dehumanizing language

Language that is dehumanizing or that ― directly or indirectly ― considers all Gazans as legitimate targets is widespread. From the president, Isaac Herzog, who believes that “there is an entire nation there that is responsible” because they did not rebel against the Hamas government, to Avigdor Lieberman, former minister of defense and foreign affairs who tweeted last Sunday that “there are no innocents in Gaza.” A far-right minister, Amijai Eliyahu, considered launching an atomic bomb as an option, and Merav Ben-Ari, a member of parliament from Yair Lapid’s party, Yesh Atid, believes that “the children of Gaza have asked for it.” Tally Gotlib, Likud deputy, calls for “merciless bombing from the air” so as not to endanger the soldiers and to stop “feeling sorry for the uninvolved Gazans” because “there are none”; and her party colleague Galit Distel Atbaryan would consider it “immoral” that the army did not behave in a “vindictive and cruel” manner.

Netanyahu himself mentioned Amalek, the enemy nation of the Israelites whose extermination God asked King Saul for, and justified the entry into southern Gaza from Egypt of two trucks with fuel per day (breaking a previous promise) in that the outbreak of an epidemic (the water treatment system requires fuel) would force the war to end early and could also affect the soldiers or even cross into Israel.

This type of rhetoric worries Israeli researcher Omer Bartov, a prominent scholar of genocide and professor of Genocide and Holocaust Studies at Brown University. Last month he caused a stir by publishing an opinion article in The New York Times in which he clarified that while Israel is not committing genocide in Gaza, he sees “genocidal intent” and warns that “while we cannot say that the military is explicitly targeting Palestinian civilians, functionally and rhetorically we may be watching an ethnic cleansing operation that could quickly devolve into genocide, as has happened more than once in the past.”

In a videoconference interview, Bartov differentiated between pejorative language between cultures and that which occurs before or during a genocide, and which consists of a “concerted effort by the state or by main actors to speak of a particular group as inhuman, in a way that incites violence or gives license to treat it differently” thereby influencing the actions of the soldiers, even if there are no express orders.

“The Hutu regime [in Rwanda] spoke of the Tutsis as cockroaches, and the Nazis of the Jews as vermin. Now, unfortunately, when talking about Hamas there is a slide into talking about Hamas and Gazans like human animals. And constantly calling them Nazis. It is something very specifically Israeli, because if you say that some people are Nazis, there is only one thing to do with them, kill them. So that type of language, whether dehumanizing or creating a type of ideological mental framework, is pre-genocidal,” Bartov points out.

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