Israeli soldiers stand near a mobile artillery unit as it fires a shell from its position outside the northern Gaza Strip November 20, 2012. Reuters/Darren Whiteside
Ashkelon and Sderot, Israel—As Israel’s war on Gaza continues six days after the assassination of Hamas military leader and key ceasefire negotiator Ahmed Jabari, the country’s south has become a nationalistic war zone. Two days after air-raid sirens went off for the first time in Tel Aviv since the 1991 Gulf War—and for the first time in Jerusalem since the 1970s—the journey to Israel’s Gaza border is interrupted by air-raid sirens, while the roads are filled with busloads of troops and flatbed trucks carrying tanks.
When sirens wail in the southern city of Ashkelon, traffic stops as soldiers and civilians of all ages run for cover. Unlike Gaza, however, daily life returns to normal soon after Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system intercepts rockets fired by Hamas, with local residents gathering for coffee inside the city’s malls.
Angered by Israel’s violation of a two-day lull in violence as a ceasefire was being hammered out, Hamas and much of the Arab world have accused Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of starting this conflict to strengthen his domestic position ahead of Israel’s January elections. Meanwhile, the hard-line nationalism of the 2008 Gaza war that propelled Netanyahu to office is re-emerging in the south, as Israelis adopt a wartime outlook.
Many Israelis hold an uncompromising, militaristic perspective on war, rallying around the government in times of crisis while blaming the enemy, regardless of context. Israel’s military supremacy and the Iron Dome system’s staggering success rate seem to be making Israelis feel secure enough to not feel an immediate need to end the violence.
“We can go out, we can go shopping if we want to. There are certain limitations, and we act according to them, but there is no need for hysteria,” says Israeli retiree Michael Bardov while having coffee with friends inside an Ashkelon cafe fifteen minutes after an air raid. “Although it’s not pleasant, we will overcome and things will be OK.”
So far at least 125 Palestinians, about half of them civilians, have been killed, as well as four Israeli civilians and one soldier. If Israel’s wars in Lebanon are any example, it’s only when casualties escalate that questioning of war becomes prominent. Bardov reflects that sentiment, saying that while he would support a ground war in Gaza if the government deemed it necessary, he is not in favor, primarily because of the cost to Israeli soldiers. He also expressed a desire to avoid increased civilian casualties in Gaza, which could harm Israel’s international standing.
“Of course the Iron Dome has created a reality here, both tactically and strategically, because it gives the army the time to think and decide whether to send the ground troops in or not,” he says.
His view is a liberal one in Israel. He was sitting with Albert Peretz, a middle-aged resident of the border town Sderot and brother of former Labor Party leader Amir Peretz, who fell from grace after being publicly held responsible for botching Israel’s 2006 invasion of Lebanon. Both Albert Peretz and Bardov are reluctant to criticize the government, despite clear reservations.
“I hope [the government] is not so cynical to use us for this [election],” Peretz says, in reference to the January polls. “I support my country, [but] the government is changing from election to election,” he says. “I’m not changing [my support for] my country and my army. I think I support all acts they did until now.”