Israeli Morale at All-time Low As Search for Answers Goes on

As a wave of terror attacks and shootings shake the usual shrug-it-off Israeli mentality, there is an increasing sense that the government is not doing enough to improve the situation.

On the left, a growing number of voices is calling for the government to unilaterally leave the territories.

On the right, people are demanding that the government crush the Palestinian Authority, and bring security back to Israel.

“Our message is a national consensus against terror and that it has to be fought with a certain degree of tenacity, and not every other day of the week,” said Ezra Rosenfeld, director of the foreign desk for Yesha, the umbrella organization for the Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Twenty-seven Israelis were killed in the past week, changing the tone and urgency of this nearly 18-month-old intifada.

In response, the Israel Defense Force has increased military actions against the Palestinian Authority, including destroying Yasser Arafat’s Gaza headquarters and returning in force to Palestinian cities and refugee camps.

But for the Peace Coalition, which includes Peace Now, Meretz, the Labor doves, and the secular kibbutzim, among others, military action isn’t the right response.

As an anti-war group, they are seeking less, not more violence. And now, their message is simple: The cycle of killing and revenge can only be broken by a bold political initiative.

“For the first time since the intifada began, we’ve been able to create a voice that can’t be ignored in Israeli public debate,” said Didi Remez, a spokesman for Peace Now.

“It’s obvious that a majority of Israelis are looking for answers, and they aren’t willing to hear the same mantras.”

Now, for the first time in months, they’re coming out again.

As the Sabbath ended on March 2, a Palestinian suicide bomber exploded in a religious neighborhood in Jerusalem, killing 10 people.

Minutes later, a previously planned Peace Now and Peace Coalition march and rally began nearby, with more than 3,000 people in attendance.

Two weeks earlier, more than 15,000 people attended a march and rally at Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, according to Peace Now figures.

It has been months since Israel’s peacenik groups have been able to gather their forces.

With their nonviolent stance, they had to figure out how to balance their message with the increasingly frequent and violent actions of the Palestinian Authority.

They avoided vigils and demonstrations, keeping gatherings small and modest. Even during the recent rally in Jerusalem, the demonstrators marched in silence. They carried candles and signs designed as death notices, printed with the inscription, “We mourn the deaths of 1,124 Israelis and Palestinians.”

But for those on the right, figuring out the solution to the current situation isn’t a matter of the left versus the right.

According to Yesha’s Rosenfeld, the Israeli population is nearly unanimous on the issue of destroying terror and terror organizations.

“If at one point people thought Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria were the problem, that number has decreased,” he said. “The left has become, at least for the present, marginalized.”

As the government and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Cabinet argue over what direction to take, the grass-roots groups are gathering strength, looking to broaden their constituencies.

For now, it seems to be the battle of the rallies.

Yesha held a rally in Rabin Square on Monday night, but it

wasn’t a political rally, Rosenfeld said.

The organizers aren’t talking about bringing down the government or supporting it. Despite recent comments made by Sharon regarding his willingness to negotiate with the Palestinians while under fire, Yesha isn’t responding.

Rather, their message is a national consensus against terror.

“If we’re making a political statement, we are patting ‘Arik’ Sharon on the back for the moment,” said Rosenfeld.

“We can’t say we’re particularly happy with his seven-day statement,” he added, referring to Sharon’s declaration that he was no longer requiring seven days of quiet to institute a cease-fire.

“As it stands now, there’s no difference between seven or two days because there aren’t six hours without shooting incidents.”

Similarly, Peace Now isn’t talking politics either. At least, not specifically.

The organization recently unveiled its new campaign, “Get Out of the Territories — Get Back to Ourselves.”

Every weekend, activists distribute materials at traffic intersections and hold vigils at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv and the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem.

They were there on Sunday, the day after a suicide bombing that killed 11 at the Moment Cafe near the prime minister’s Jerusalem residence.

So were a group of young settlers, who came to offer support to the IDF, said one of the demonstrators.

“Peace and security, Sharon style,” read one of the Peace Now signs, which included the total fatalities to date — 961 Palestinians; 340 Israelis.

Several of the young residents from the settlements sat on the curb outside the bombed cafe, reading psalms and wrapped in an Israeli flag.

“It will take a while for us to get back to the center,” said Remez. “The gut instinct for revenge is strong and re- emerges every time there’s a bombing.”

At the same time, he believes the numbers are there.

With 40 percent to 50 percent of Israelis considered in the center, and the other 50 percent split between the right and the left, Peace Now is looking to gain those in the center, the confused core.

“It’s a question of creating an alternative public voice,” Remez said.

“In the short term, it has a moderating influence. In the long term, we want to build infrastructure that will be a basis for an alternative, and when the political situation is viable, to be able to step in.”

In the meantime, it seems the left is either louder — or has more money — than those on the right.

Over the last few weeks, full-page newspaper ads and billboards with graphic images of recent victims have been sponsored by the Parents Circle: Israelis and Palestinians for Peace.

Using a $1.5 million budget gathered from donations in Europe, the United States and Israel, the group of Israeli and Palestinian families is seeking joint conciliation.

With attention-grabbing headlines such as, “Mr. Prime Minister: What else needs to happen before you decide to negotiate?!” and “Ariel Sharon. Yasser Arafat. What are you waiting for?” the group is seeing grass-roots results, said Yitzhak Frankental, who heads the organization.

“People say, ‘Finally, someone’s doing something,’ ” he said.

Another new protest group, the Seventh Day — named for the day they say will complete the 1967 Six-Day War — has developed, calling for withdrawal from the territories, which Israel captured during that war.

And there are the growing number of army reservists refusing to serve in the territories, one of whom recently had an Op-Ed published in The New York Times.

IDF officials have said that the March draft — one of three each year — will be the most problematic the army has had in a long time.

According to the Peace Index survey carried out by Tel Aviv University, Jewish Israelis are confused about how to change the present situation.

According to the February poll, only 26.5 percent of those polled support the use of greater military force.

At the same time, only 27 percent support a joint Israeli-Palestinian political initiative, while support for international intervention has risen to 17 percent from 8 percent the month before.

The number of those who believe that no solution exists has increased to 23 percent from 15 percent.

And Israeli morale is at an all-time low. Streets are emptier than usual, in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, as people avoid public places for fear of terrorist attacks.

In Jerusalem, cafes were mostly empty following Saturday night’s attack.

Aroma, a popular coffee shop on Emek Refaim Street, had stacked up its tables and chairs, and was only offering takeout coffee to its customers.

“I don’t have any answers,” said Dudi, who was ringing up customers’ orders.

“But I know one thing: People aren’t going to sit drinking coffee if they’re worried about getting blown up.”

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