On The Israeli Street, Toughness And Compassion


Jerusalem — As she walked her dog in the German Colony section here on Monday afternoon, where the peace and quiet — at least for the moment — gave no hint of the fighting down south, Sarah Mizrachi gave voice to what a lot of Israelis seem to be feeling as the ground war in the Gaza Strip grinds on and the Palestinian civilian and Israeli military deaths pile up.

The Israel Defense Force, the 20something Mizrachi said, must be permitted to harm Hamas and its militant allies.

But her point of view was tinged with compassion.

“I’m horrified by the deaths of so many innocents in Gaza, especially children,” Mizrachi said. “But unless the Islamic extremists are stopped, who knows what kinds of attacks they could commit against our children.”

Moris Shukrun, a Jerusalem hair stylist whose shop is in the Talpiot section, referenced what was on everyone’s mind this week: a possible cease-fire, and the conditions that come with it.

Shukrun, 35, said that “Yes, absolutely” he would support a cease-fire — but only if Israel could receive guarantees “of no more terrorist activities and no more rockets. And if Hamas was disarmed and we couldn’t find and destroy every [terrorist] tunnel” — the expressed goal of Israel’s ground incursion into Gaza — “I’d still want an end this fighting.”

The views of Mizrachi and Shukrun seemed in line with the majority of Israelis as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon tried to hammer out a cease-fire even as Hamas rockets continued to rain down on Israel, and as graphic images of wounded and dead Palestinians filled newspaper front pages and TV broadcasts.

“The violence must stop, it must stop now,” Ban Ki-moon said at a news conference Tuesday with Egypt’s foreign minister.

President Obama and Kerry have urged Israel to show restraint in its ground operations, all the while insisting that it has a right to defend its citizens.

Yet despite these pressures — and the deaths of 27 Israeli soldiers as of Tuesday — the Israeli government appeared intent on continuing its mission to destroy Gaza’s underground tunnels and severely weaken Hamas, even as a debate broke out on whether a cease-fire or a reoccupation of Gaza was the prudent strategy to pursue.

“We’ll need to make a very complex decision to return to the Gaza Strip and take back security responsibility for the Gaza Strip,” Ze’ev Elkin, the head of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and a member of Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party, said last week. “If we do not do it, the result is obvious. We can recover from Hamas, but if you want to bring real security to the people in Israel’s south, there is only one way to do it.”

But Israeli Labor Party Chairman Isaac Herzog sees a cease-fire as an opportunity to strengthen the hand of the more moderate Palestinian Authority. Herzog wants an agreement to give the Palestinian Authority control of Gaza’s border crossings, a step he hopes will lead to full PA rule in Gaza.

“We can move on to an international effort to broker a deal with this weakened Hamas whereby there can be a change in Gaza,” Herzog said last week.

For now, the government, backed by all but dovish Israelis, wants to “finish the job” it started in Gaza to prevent yet another round of armed conflict with Hamas.

A July 22 opinion poll by the pro-Likud newspaper Israel Hayom found that 77 percent of Israelis oppose a cease-fire under the current circumstances; 71 percent support expanding the ground operation; and 73 percent are satisfied with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s performance.

Analysts say much of this support can be traced to the fact that Hamas has targeted its attacks on the Israeli heartland. Residents of greater Tel Aviv have been forced into bomb shelters dozens of times, while sirens have wailed as far north as Haifa. That, coupled with the realization that Hamas built its cross-border tunnels to launch the kinds of large-scale terror attacks that were once so common here, has mobilized the public.

“The public is saying, ‘Enough is enough,’” Efraim Inbar, director of the BESA Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, said of the opinion poll. “The tunnels show the determination of Hamas to kidnap and kill Israelis. Furthermore, Israel was ready to accept the Egyptian cease-fire [which Hamas rejected]. The ground operation was the only choice.”

Tamir Sheafer, a Hebrew University professor and expert on the impact of public opinion and the media on Israeli government policy, agrees that Israelis are willing to stay the course in Gaza despite the deaths of so many soldiers.

“Right now the public in Israel supports destroying the tunnels because they see them as a major threat. People appear to accept that [the risk to soldiers] is part of the price Israel must pay to ensure its security.”

That, Sheafer said, is giving the government “leeway” to continue the operation.

Asked what it would take for Israel to agree to a long-term cease-fire, Jonathan Rynhold, a senior researcher at BESA, said, “The issue is more what Hamas will agree to, as their beef is more with Egypt than with us. If they agree to something close to the Egyptian cease-fire terms, “Israel will accept this.”

The Egyptian proposal includes opening the border crossing between Gaza and Egypt under the control of the Palestinian Authority as well as the payment of long-overdue salaries to civil servants in Gaza.

Rynhold said Israel has no desire to stay in Gaza a moment more than necessary.

“Once the tunnels are destroyed — which will be soon according to IDF estimates — there will be an exit point opportunity. As to whether this will happen, again it depends mainly on Hamas,” he said.

So far, Rynhold said, “their demands have increased during the war. The problem has been that the military wing has been making the decisions and sitting in their bunkers, as such they are immune from the feelings of the public in Gaza.”

When it comes to cease-fire terms, Inbar said, Netanyahu has room to maneuver “because he has been careful not to specify the toppling of Hamas as a goal, and I’m not sure we can get rid of Hamas, which is deeply rooted in Palestinian society.”

He said that Israel’s mandatory military service contributes to the widespread support of the ground operation.

“Many Israelis have military experience and understand this operation involves tragic losses, and nevertheless they continue to support it,” Inbar said.

At a falafel stand in Baka, a recent immigrant from Canada named Levy, who declined to give his last name, said he will be going into the army in two weeks.

“Israel should not accept a cease-fire until it meets all its objectives,” said Levy, 26. “Because what’s the use of having a cease-fire when two years from now we’re going to have to do this all over again, just like we’re doing now, and have been for the past six years.”

Back in the German Colony, Mizrachi shuddered at the thought of Hamas’ brazenness, and extent of the terrorist group’s tunnel network.

“The very thought that a band of terrorists could dig their way into a kibbutz underground and emerge in someone’s home or a kindergarten is too scary to contemplate,” she said. “Hamas needs to be stopped.”

JTA contributed to this report.