Polls show wall-to-wall support for Israel’s fight against Hezbollah, even with Israeli civilians enduring a barrage of rocket fire and the army poised for a sweeping ground offensive that is sure to lead to more casualties.
Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon sparked the largest anti-war demonstrations in Israel’s history — causing fractures in Israeli society that have barely healed. But this time it’s different.
Israelis are united in a sense of outrage at what they see as an unprovoked attack by Hezbollah and a belief that the guerrilla group, backed by Iran, poses a threat to the Jewish state’s survival, said Yehuda Ben Meir, a former Israeli deputy foreign minister and a senior fellow at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies.
A poll published Tuesday in Israel’s Maariv newspaper showed 80 percent of respondents support the military’s conduct during the offensive, while 74 percent said Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his government were doing a great job. The poll of 500 adults had a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points.
Public did not support last invasion
Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 in a bid to wipe out Palestinian militants who were using the country’s south as a launching pad for attacks on Israel.
Within a week of the offensive, public opinion began to turn against it. Protests grew as casualties mounted and allegations surfaced that then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon misled the government over his war aims. The opposition exploded in massive protests after a Lebanese militia allied with Israel massacred Palestinians in the Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps.
Even Israel’s pullback to a buffer zone along the Lebanese border — which it occupied until 2000 — did not silence critics, who called Lebanon “Israel’s Vietnam.”
Now, despite three weeks of fighting that has killed 51 Israelis and more than 500 Lebanese and growing international pressure for a cease-fire, Olmert has authorized the army to push ahead with a major new offensive.
“Every extra day is one that drains the strength of the enemy. Every day that passes is one in which the (army) reduces their ability to fight us,” Olmert said Tuesday after his Cabinet authorized the use of thousands of reservists to push 18 miles into Lebanon toward the Litani River, the original goal of the 1982 offensive.
He can do this because of his overwhelming public support, which has remained steady through the fierce battle of Bint Jbail, where Israeli forces took heavy losses, and the bombing of a building in Qana that killed 56 Lebanese civilians, many of them children, said Ben Meir, who specializes in Israeli public opinion.
The lone dissenter
Israel’s Arabs, who make up about 20 percent of the population, are the lone voice of opposition to the fighting, Arab-Israeli lawmaker Ahmed Tibi said.
“We are a small minority in Israel where the consensus is overwhelming, there is no more right and left,” he said. “Any words we are saying against the war are being interpreted as attacking the whole of Israel.”
If the Arab community is factored out, approval for the war passes 90 percent, a number almost unheard of in a country deeply divided by religion and politics, Ben Meir said.
Even the staunchest opponents of Israel’s previous Lebanon foray back this war.
“This is an existential war. A war over our actual lives,” said Orna Shimoni, a member of the now defunct Four Mothers grass roots group widely credited with getting Israel to withdraw from Lebanon in 2000.
What frightens her is Hezbollah’s alliance with Iran, which has nuclear ambitions and a stated goal of wiping Israel off the map.
“Not one person from the nation of Israel will remain,” she told the Haaretz daily. “So I feel that despite the terrible pain, this war is just and necessary to protect our lives.”
‘It will never break me’
Many Israelis view Hezbollah “as a vicious, ruthless, cruel Shiite organization affiliated with Iran,” said Ben Meir. These feelings were enhanced when the guerrillas launched a July 12 cross-border raid, killing three soldiers and capturing two.
To get rid of this threat, Israelis are prepared to suffer losses and withstand the barrage of nearly 1,900 Katyusha rockets Hezbollah has fired into Israel over the past three weeks.
“I am ready to absorb (the rockets) as long as it takes if I know that eventually there will be no more Katyushas,” said Nachman Finkelstein, 48, a resident of Kiryat Shemona who has been living in a bomb shelter for weeks.
“It will never break me as long as I know the army is doing what it has to do,” he said.