For Israelis, How Far To Go?


JERUSALEM How many casualties are too many casualties? How much destruction is too much destruction? And how long should Israel continue its military assault on Hezbollah targets in Lebanon in order to achieve at least part of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s stated goal of destroying “every terrorist infrastructure, everywhere?”

These are the tough questions facing Israelis, who, despite a long history with Hezbollah, have found themselves in the midst of a new, more frightening reality. In the past, only residents of the country’s northernmost communities — Kiryat Shemona, Metulla, Nahariya — were forced to flee to bomb shelters when Hezbollah fired Katyusha rockets into Israeli backyards and kindergartens. Now the missiles being fired by this Islamic terrorist organization have struck further south, reaching Safed, Acco, Haifa and Nazareth, which is largely Arab. When the Israel Defense Forces revealed that some of Hezbollah’s missiles could possibly reach as far south as Tel Aviv, a Kiryat Shemona family that had taken refuge in that coastal city told Ha’aretz that it was heading back up north.

“Nowhere is safe,” they said, echoing the concerns of people not only in the north of the country, but the center as well. The public’s sense of national vulnerability is playing itself out in opinion polls. The findings of the most recent Yediot Aharonth/Dahaf poll, published on July 18, “show that the public is very resolved to continue to get rid of the threat of Hezbollah,” Mina Tzemech, Dahaf’s chief pollster, told The Jewish Week as war raged in the north.

“This resolve is strongest among the people on the front,” Tzemech added. A whopping 95 percent of the Jews surveyed said they approved of the government’s actions with regard to Hezbollah. The number dropped to 86 percent when Arab citizens were factored in. An overwhelming 97 percent of the northern residents polled were in favor of the IDF’s attack. There was significantly less consensus over the issue of what Israel should do next. When asked what Israel’s next move should be, a smaller majority (58 percent of Jews and Arabs combined) said the IDF “should continue until Hezbollah is annihilated.” Exactly two-thirds of the Jews who were asked this question called for nothing short of Hezbollah’s complete destruction. Of the remainder, one percent of Israelis said that the military action should stop if the abducted soldiers are freed; another one percent said the IDF should continue while negotiations take place; 17 percent said the IDF should stop its actions immediately and negotiate; and 23 percent said the army should “drive back the threat” of Hezbollah. Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig, chairman of Bar-Ilan University’s department of political studies, said Israelis’ strong support for the war in Lebanon follows a decades-old pattern. “In the beginning of every single war, including the first Lebanon War, which ended catastrophically, the public has consistently supported the government, at least for the first few days,” he said.

This support traditionally waned, Lehman-Wilzig said, after the number of Israeli casualties started to mount. “What is different now is that there are no Israeli troops in a foreign country,” the political scientist said of the IDF’s decision to hit Lebanon by air and to blockade it by sea, without the entry of ground troops. “ We can’t get bogged down because we’re not in Lebanon. There is no worry on how will we get out,” he said.

The IDF quit its longtime presence in Lebanon six years ago, largely due to public pressure following the deaths of numerous soldiers manning positions in the so-called “security zone” in southern Lebanon.

The public’s trust in the government could erode once again if dozens more Israeli civilians or soldiers are badly wounded or killed, Lehman-Wilzig said. At the moment, the analyst said, Olmert is receiving high marks for his use of force against Hezbollah. According to the Dahaf poll, 77 percent think he is doing either a good job or a very good job, while only 17 percent called his performance lackluster or worse. “The public believes the government’s actions are legitimate due to the kidnappings, ” Lehman-Wilzing said, “but the fact that Olmert’s somewhat leftist government, which promised to uproot settlements from the West Bank, is doing this has given him added legitimacy. “If Olmert and Shimon Peres are the ones leading this military campaign, they are receiving a lot of support from the left and center,” Lehman-Wilzig said.

This support is far from universal, however, with some on the left saying Israel should not be bombing Lebanon so extensively “to make Hezbollah pull back,” according to the Bar-Ilan professor. Already, the newspapers are carrying op-eds voicing the fear that Israel will once again sink into the Lebanese quagmire, as it did in the 1980s and 1990s. “How quickly we have forgotten the long occupation in southern Lebanon,” Yitzhak Laor wrote in Ha’aretz this week. “Let us set aside the horrors that are being carried out [in Lebanon] in our name. It is enough to see the destruction of Iraq and its results.” While a few war opponents placed banners reading “Yes to Dialogue, No to Murder” at some Jerusalem intersections, the capital bore no other signs that battles were taking place up north. In fact, teenagers participating in youth groups and foreign tour groups were in abundance, and the restaurants and hotels were packed. Despite the fact that Jerusalemites have been enjoying their best summer in years, due to the lack of terrorist attacks following years of intifada, most residents here appeared to support the government’s actions in Lebanon. “I’m a lefty, but I want to kick their ass,” Meir Zarovsky, a 53-year-old photographer said while riding a bus to the city center. “If anything, the IDF could be doing more: bombing their schools, their hospitals, their mosques. It’s the only way to deal with these people.”

“We should have done this years ago,” a 47-year-old Jerusalemite who gave his name as Nissim said while sipping a coffee in a downtown café. “This is our opportunity to hit them hard, right down to the bone.” “The IDF has to hit harder,” said 22-year-old Shai Cohen, who served in a combat unit until three months ago. “Right now we’re hitting gas stations.”

What of the Lebanese civilians wounded by IDF fire?

“In a war, both sides suffer,” Cohen said. “What about our casualties?” Cohen, who now manages a small hot dog restaurant on a busy side street, expressed the sense that “for once, most of the world is with us. America is calling for negotiations, but not for a ceasefire. It understands our need to fight terror, at least since 9/11.”

Daniel Lang, a building contractor, felt that Israel should hit Lebanese targets as hard as possible, while it has the opportunity.

“As soon as the U.N. and the U.S. start getting involved with a ceasefire, we’ll be right back where we started” Lang said.