Sasa Petricic: Israeli attitudes on Gaza seem firmly behind Netanyahu

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Monday that Israel would not stop until Gaza was demilitarized, a declaration unlikely to make waves with the Israeli public, writes CBC correspondent Sasa Petricic.

Very few Israelis back full ceasefire, according to most polls

The mood was sombre, the tone grave, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu started his statement on Monday.

"This has been a difficult and painful day," he told Israelis.

They didn’t learn until later how painful. Ten more soldiers had been killed in Hamas militant attacks.

A few days earlier, when Israel announced its ground incursions into Gaza, the operation was described as limited. The goal was simply to destroy tunnels Hamas had dug under the border into southern Israel, apparently aimed at attacking communities nearby. Now though, the "operation" had become a "war."

Just like that. Netanyahu announced that Israel would not stop until Gaza was demilitarized — a much more ambitious goal that has not been achieved in Gaza in two previous conflicts.

This fight would be the ultimate battle with Hamas, he implied.

"There is no more just war than this one that our sons are fighting," he said. Israel is under attack. The rockets fired by the Palestinian militant group Hamas daily have to be silenced. The "terror tunnels" blown up, he said.

For many in the Israeli press, it’s not enough.

'Take care of our own first'

The morning after, in Israel’s popular daily newspaper Ma’ariv, columnist Ben Caspit writes that Netanyahu needs a more dramatic change of course, a bigger conflict. "In one blow, savagely, with all engines forward. There is no other way," he says.

"If Israel, again, does not come out of this with a clear victory against Hamas … it will signify the lack of Israeli determination to pay a price for victory against enemies," adds Caspit. "Who will convince Hamas, [extremist Islamic groups] ISIS, Jabhat al_Nusra, and all the other organizations around us that anyone who tries to raise a hand against the Jewish state will have it cut off?"

Are Israelis ready for the massive, and dangerous, undertaking? In a society notoriously sensitive about losing soldiers, would it be worth the sacrifice?

Already, more than 50 have been killed, most of them barely into their twenties. Some were 19. In a country with universal military service, they are always considered everyone’s children. Three civilians have lost their lives on the Israeli side, but most have learned to trust Israel’s effective missile defence system, which intercepts most Hamas rockets before they cause serious damage or death.

Deaths on the other side, in Gaza, are not a big consideration in the media or social media here. The fact that several dozen civilians died the previous day, or that the overall toll among Palestinians has surpassed 1,100 — a total overwhelmingly civilian, according to the UN — is not in the headlines. It is mentioned in passing, and dismissed as "entirely the fault of Hamas," according to Netanyahu, because the militant group chooses to put its rocket launchers amid the population and it has neglected to build shelters against Israeli missiles for its people.

"We have to take care of our own first," an Israeli friend tells me. "What would you do?"

Indeed, that has been the question Israel has asked the world rhetorically, while insisting that it doesn’t really care much about the answer. This is Israel’s decision to make, Israel’s war to fight, in many people’s minds.

Allies need not apply

Even strong allies like the United States are considered unqualified to offer advice. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was heavily criticized, insulted and ridiculed as a dupe of Hamas for his attempt to broker a ceasefire.

"He is a friend of Israel, but with friends like him, it is sometimes better to negotiate with enemies," argued columnist Nahum Barnea in Israeli’s biggest daily newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth.

Israelis know what they need. And right now, they have apparently decided they want to keep fighting as long as it takes to destroy Hamas. A poll done for Channel 10 and published this past Sunday found that 87 per cent of Israelis "support the continuation of warfare in the Gaza strip." Only seven per cent backed a full ceasefire. Other surveys have found similar results.

Editor David Horovitz sums it up this way in the online Times of Israel: "What preoccupies us right now is one simple, essential imperative: To prevail."

Amid all the grim news, he says, "What isn’t grim is the relative unity of fragmented Israel right now, and the motivation of our soldiers. We are joined in common horror at the evidence of Hamas’s war-to-the-death strategy, and in the realization of the extent of the danger — so much so that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at a press conference Monday night, was asked not about whether he was getting Israel too deep into conflict but about how he could possibly have accepted [Egypt’s ceasefire offer]."

Indeed, some Israelis even cheer on every missile strike into Gaza … quite literally. On a hillside in the town of Sderot, overlooking northern Gaza, there is a couch and plastic garden chairs where Israelis come to see what their army and air force is doing. I have seen people here regularly over the past weeks. I have seen them clap when the smoke rises on the other side of the border and the earthshaking boom sounds. At night, some even bring popcorn as they watch the display, like fireworks or a movie.

"Look, they want to kill me," Sderot resident Chaim Kravitz tells me. "I have no choice but to kill them. Understand that."

Protesters demonstrate at own risk

Some other Israelis do disagree. But in today’s Israel, they express that at their own risk.

Those who oppose the way Israel is attacking Gaza and upset at the growing civilian casualties on the other side have held a number of protests here.

They are frequently heckled and disrupted or just plain refused a permit to demonstrate because the police cannot guarantee their safety.

Several left-wing activists have been beaten up severely, ending up in hospital. After a round of duelling demos in Tel Aviv this past weekend, where extreme right-wing youths shouted down and then attacked those opposed to the war in Gaza, one outspoken demonstrator, Elizabeth Turkov, tweeted, "Numerous protests were held in Tel Aviv against the war for the past three weeks. ALL of them ended with racists attacking us."

Even more subtle expressions of support for Gaza are discouraged. Non-profit group B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, tried to buy air time to read the names of Palestinian children killed by Israeli air strikes in Gaza. The ads were banned by the Israeli Broadcasting Authority for being too "politically controversial."

Support for a wider war is anything but politically controversial. Still, in Israel that too can quickly shift.

As Yedioth Ahronoth columnist Sima Kadmon warns Netanyahu, "Does he remember how fickle public opinion can be? How it can change with the blink of an eye? And how treacherous all the ministers who are now calling him to expand the operation can be? We’ll see where everyone is when something goes awry."

As if nothing that’s happened so far, is considered to have "gone awry."