Israelis set aside bickering for now


JERUSALEM, Oct. 16 (JTA) – Customers at an Israeli supermarket wince at photos of a Ramallah mob lynching two reserve soldiers who accidentally turned into the West Bank town.

“They are barbarians and they hate us. That is the problem,” says Orit, a cashier. “Now there is nothing left to do, no chance for peace.”

The horrific lynchings and the deadly violence has left Israel as it usually is during times of national crisis – briefly unified.

People across the political spectrum are together if only in their disgust, as many saw the lynching as a personification of the deep enmity Palestinians feel towards Israelis.

Now, in the streets or on TV talk shows, the tone of the public debate is different. Israeli Jews are no longer shouting at each other and are trying to pull together to face the challenges ahead.

During the Sukkot holiday this week, usually an upbeat time throughout Israel, the feeling of despair has become more tangible in the public mood.

Several annual festivals were cancelled due to the situation, and the streets of downtown Jerusalem are much more somber than usual for a holiday week.

Even though there has been no public panic, Yediot Achronot, Israel’s biggest daily newspaper, reported that, according to one supermarket chain, Israelis are stocking up on canned goods and mineral water.

The chain, Supersol, reported a 50 percent increase in sales of both, and snack foods have been selling twice as fast as usual, apparently since Israelis are spending long hours watching television coverage of the crisis.

On Monday, the Dan bus company said it would cancel two lines that run through Jaffa, a mixed Jewish-Arab city adjacent to Tel Aviv, since the buses on that route had been stoned several times.

Even though for most Israelis the crisis has not changed their day-to-day lives, the constant flood of news has created a feeling of war and an atmosphere of confusion and despair.

Public opinion polls show some contradictions in what the recent events have done to Israeli opinion.

A poll taken by the Israeli daily Ma’ariv before the lynching showed that 62 percent of Israelis no longer believe there is a Palestinian partner to make peace with. However, 63 percent of Israelis said they would still be willing to return to the negotiating table. Although that figure had fallen 5 percentage points from the previous poll, it appeared to indicate that Israelis are frightened of the war they see unfolding.

“I still support making peace with them, since they are our neighbors and we must find a way to live together,” says Tzahi Sharabi, 46, who owns a real estate agency in Jerusalem, and describes himself as a centrist. “But we must strike back at them harder.”

Outside of Sharabi’s agency, by the Pat junction, a gateway to some of Jerusalem’s poorest Jewish neighborhoods and a stronghold of the right-wing Likud Party, many people agree that Israel must be tougher.

Few feel that the scores of Palestinians killed by Israeli soldiers are Israel’s responsibility. Neither are they concerned about international public opinion that tends to turn against Israel the harder it hits back at the Palestinians.

“We must hit them harder,” says David Shalom, a 48-year old car dealer. “Not the civilians, but we must teach the Palestinian police a lesson. They started this at a time when Barak wanted to sit down at the negotiating table.”

In the more liberal Emek Refaim neighborhood, coffee shops were full last Friday, the day after the murder of the two Israeli soldiers and the Israeli strikes against Palestinian targets.

But even here, there were plenty of peace supporters who backed Barak’s decision to launch strikes inside Palestinian-controlled territory.

“As far as I know, the strikes were on Palestinian police targets, and attempted to avoid civilians,” says Esther Nadav, an accountant from Jerusalem and an ardent peace supporter.

“After what I saw yesterday,” she adds, referring to the lynching, “I did not feel that it bothered me.”

In fact, the lynching of the two Israeli soldiers so shocked Nadav that she found herself even willing to consider proposals by Rehavam Ze’evi, from the extreme right-wing National Unity Party.

“I don’t accept his policies about transferring the Arabs,” she says. “But I heard him speaking on the radio about cutting off Palestinian water and electricity, and suddenly what he was saying made sense.”

On the flip side, Shalom Cohen, a Likud supporter who owns a specialty wine store in the neighborhood, also has views that demonstrate the confusion in Israeli public opinion.

“We should not be so merciful,” he says, calling on Barak to launch even tougher strikes against the Palestinians. But, he adds: “I don’t believe that Arafat is a partner in peace, but he is their elected leader and we must negotiate with him.”

Yaron, a 29-year-old-electrical engineer and ardent peace supporter, says his fundamental views have not been changed by the violence, although he too backed Barak’s tough response.

“The romantic vision of peace may have disappeared,” says Yaron, “But maybe now the right wing will become more realistic and understand the price of the alternative.”

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