United under the flag

Israel’s military has entered gaza, mobilizing tens of thousands of reservists. Unlike the air strikes, the ground offensive is supported by only a few israelis

The incursion began shortly after nightfall. Immediately after the start of the ground offensive, shots were heard on the israeli side of the border; hamas soldiers and fighters had engaged in a heavy battle, israeli tv stations reported. This means that operation "cast lead" into its second week. The number of dead and wounded in gaza is rising steadily, as is the number of targets destroyed in the densely populated strip, where it is virtually impossible to destroy hamas radical installations without hitting civilians. Unwra, the united nations relief and works agency for palestinian refugees, estimates that up to one-third of the victims are civilians. On the israeli side, however, the number of casualties has so far remained low. However, rockets continue to be fired from the gaza strip in the direction of israel, increasingly hitting major cities such as ashdod, ashkelon and the fourth-growth israeli city of beer sheva, fueling fears in this country that the metropolis of tel aviv could also be hit very soon – with a large number of casualties.

And so a majority of jewish israelis of voting age support a continuation of the airstrikes, which they hope will provide a lasting solution to the rocket problem. A ground offensive, however, is viewed critically: only one-fifth of the voters support an invasion of the gaza strip. However, as it seems at the moment, it is almost impossible to avoid it: the targets for further airstrikes are almost exhausted, and that without any significant decrease in the number of rockets hitting israel.

Despite massive criticism from abroad, israel’s government rejects a cease-fire, even a very short one – and with it the population: only 20 percent are in favor of a cease-fire. Cease-fire will give israel legitimacy, aubern minister zippi livni said thursday. The matter must now be brought to a conclusion if there is to be lasting peace, chief of general staff gabriel ashkenazi said. But that carries gross risks, say the first critics to speak out: the longer the operation "cast lead" the longer the cease-fire lasts, the greater the danger that things will go wrong, that high casualties will be suffered, that the end result will be the same as after the lebanon war two and a half years ago – without any real improvement in the situation and in the face of public criticism. For experience shows that their opinion changes quickly.

Only 20 percent are for the ground offensive

"Cast lead" is an operation – according to the israeli government – that is a war after the fashion of all others, operating according to special rules: while israeli helicopters bomb gaza targets almost unceasingly, some 20 times on friday alone, and hamas fighters fire rockets toward israel just as almost unceasingly, united nations and red cross trucks transport aid supplies to the bitterly poor, completely overpopulated strip of land under the control of radical islamic hamas, and jewish doctors operate on the severely wounded among the civilian victims in israeli hospitals.

"Successful" calls the israeli ministry of defense; "clean" call it the government’s pr strategists, who were brought together in a national public relations committee after the lebanon war in the summer of 2006, which turned out to be not only a strategic but also a media debacle, because a large part of the success and failure of wars and military operations is decided by the media nowadays.

Public opinion – especially at home – is important for waging a successful war free of debates about warfare and war aims that could give the enemy the image of a demoralized adversary, say members of this pr crisis staff, which will get its acid test these days.

Because, while it is easy to launch air strikes, the ground troops have to be "declare", the israeli euphemism for "propaganda", because they just "clean" the fact that the ground offensives are mostly carried out without any civilian casualties makes it more difficult to make the ground offensive palatable to the population, as can be seen very clearly in opinion polls conducted last week on behalf of various israeli media: depending on the polling institute, between 53 and 71 percent support the air strikes, which last week reduced a large part of hamas infrastructure to rubble and cost the lives of more than 450 people on the palestinian side, but only 20 percent are in favor of the ground offensive, which began after dark on saturday evening.

There are two main reasons for this: air strikes are low-risk and manpower-saving, whereas a ground offensive requires a lot of soldiers, can take a long time, and could also result in high casualties. And very quickly, images of fierce house-to-house fighting and women and children killed in the densely populated area, where civilians and combatants are almost indistinguishable from each other, could go around the world. "This is a situation in which no one would like to see a loved one go", sociologist ron baron explains the lack of support for the ground offensive:

Many feared that another long, grueling occupation of gaza could follow.

The army denies this and stated on saturday evening that the aim of the invasion is only to occupy the areas from which the rockets are fired in the direction of israel. And yet, as a precautionary measure, the cabinet approved the call-up of tens of thousands more reservists, after 6500 reserve soldiers had already been called up over the course of the past week.

"The longer an operation lasts, the more can go wrong"

The call-up must be thought of in this way: morning, noon, night in bed – the phone could ring at any time and a voice on the other end would say: "they immediately move to the rally point". The fact that those for whom this could happen are less than enthusiastic tonight is mainly due to the fact that these young men, few of them over 30, had actually hoped that after their three years of military service they would finally be able to start their lives, at university, in their jobs, with their families, wherever. The israeli military operation in the gaza strip has dashed this hope and replaced it with the prospect of possibly having to spend several months in gaza without anything possibly coming out of it in the end.

Days ago, the first critics in the media warned against placing exaggerated hopes in a ground operation: "the longer an operation lasts, the more can go wrong: there may be stronger opposition than expected; friendly casualties may be high; operational objectives may not be achieved", comments ron sofer in the newspaper jedioth ahronoth, and author amos oz writes in the same newspaper that israel would gain nothing from a ground offensive except in the "gaza swamp" stuck:

The people will not rebel against hamas; there will be no regime sympathetic to israel.

Israel should immediately engage in a cease-fire and negotiate with hamas.

Yes, it is difficult to find anyone in israel these days who is not in favor of finally putting an end to the rocket fire on the towns and villages in the gaza neighborhood, but it seems that few are willing to make a personal sacrifice for that: "let the air force do it; they must be good for something", is a recurring theme, as the air force, which many believe to be superior, is very unpopular among most units of the military.

And yet, the invasion, as many members of combat units had been aware for days, seemed almost unavoidable from the start: for the past week, the israeli air force has been attacking hamas targets and, according to the israeli government, razing almost all of its infrastructure to the ground; at some point, the number of targets to be reached from the air had been exhausted. That at some point the ground forces would be given the task of rendering the missiles and their potential protectors harmless on the ground was to be expected. In any case, that is the goal that the government of operation "cast lead" and from which it will not be diaded even by a multitude of international protests:

Ceasefire rejected

On wednesday, the cabinet categorically rejected a ceasefire, even a very short one. They have achieved more than expected so far and will now finish the job, even if that may mean a long fight, says government spokesman mark regev: "enough is enough", he once again repeated the slogan of these days, "our burgers in gaza’s neighborhood have suffered long enough."

This message, says regev, of that he is quite sure, will also be understood abroad. But the international reactions speak a different language: almost all of asia, the arab world anyway, the united nations and the european union have spoken out against the military operation with its poetic name, which, by the way, was given by a government committee that does nothing but find names for events, and called for an immediate ceasefire. The high death toll, now well over 400, of which up to a third could be civilian victims according to the united nations, has not failed to have an effect on public opinion abroad: in many countries there are demonstrations almost every day.

There are two reasons why the israeli government is just as undeterred by this as by the lack of support for a ground operation: the military fears that hamas will use a cease-fire to close its ranks, which are currently in a state of chaos, replenish its weapons stockpiles and then strike again against israel.

And: the israeli population is fed up with the constant news about the rocket attacks on sderot and the surrounding area, and in addition: since the rockets have been hitting more distant cities such as ashkelon, ashdod and even the fourth-growth city of beer sheva for several days (see hamas rockets could threaten israeli nuclear reactor dimona); since the start of "cast lead" the poll ratings of almost all government politicians have shot up. People are happy that the army is now taking rough action against hamas and its fighters, and hope that calm will finally return.

However, polls in israel are a very short-lived affair; voters like to change their minds often. This could be seen just a few hours after the start of the ground offensive, when the tv stations published the first flash polls – the original 20 percent supporters had suddenly become more than 60 percent.

"Unite under the flag", this phenomenon, which can also be observed in many other countries, is referred to by israeli demoscopes: in crisis situations of all kinds, even if it’s just a soccer game or the eurovision song contest, the public tends to behave in a statist manner "uniting under the flag" and even more so when his own country is under international criticism, as sociologist baron points out:

"Publics under the flag" already find it difficult to critically examine what is going on – everyone is expected to be behind what their own country’s representatives are doing – this was seen in the u.S., for example, when even internationally renowned media were unable to critically examine the motives behind the iraq war. The phenomenon continues until something goes wrong. As soon as this is the case, the knives are sharpened.

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