For many Israelis, Gaza carnage is a necessary evil

JERUSALEM Fri Jan 9, 2009 1:14pm GMT

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JERUSALEM (Reuters) - The asymmetry is searing. A modern military unleashed on ragtag guerrillas defending slums. Nine troops killed versus some 100 times the toll on the other side, many of them civilians whose lives had been shaped by deep privation and belief the world never cared to intervene.

From afar, Israel's two-week-old Gaza offensive may seem tough to defend. The starkness mounts when Israel's past peace diplomacy and Western democratic credentials is considered.

Yet polls show an overwhelming majority of Israelis support the armed forces as they lash the Gaza Strip with the stated aim of undermining its Islamist rulers Hamas and stopping Palestinians from firing rockets across the border.

"This is the time to back the commanders, soldiers and pilots working day and night to conduct a difficult, complex and entirely just war," said Ari Shavit of the leftist Haaretz daily, sentiments matched across Israel's political fissures.

A poll on Friday in Maariv newspaper found only 4 percent of Jewish Israelis opposed the war and 91 percent were in favour. (Few in Israel's 20-percent Arab minority share that view.)

Bemoaning the spiralling human crisis in Gaza, Shavit nonetheless echoed widely held views among liberal Israelis in praising the Jewish state for "finally behaving as a mature nation protecting itself with wisdom and restraint."

Israeli views on the bloodshed, which has provoked public outrage in world capitals and frenzied truce mediation by the Jewish state's allies, tend to sluice between the plain logic of self-defence and more general jitters over long-term threats.

Gaza's Hamas leadership declared a six-month truce dead on December 19 and escalated rocket salvoes that never entirely ceased, so many Israelis consider striking Gaza a moral duty. Hamas complaints that Israel had broken the truce by its raids and a blockade on the enclave carry little weight with them.

That the offensive -- Operation Cast Lead -- has gone well beyond avenging the mostly bloodless rocket attacks, and is now devastating Gaza on a scale unprecedented even for Palestinians, may mean Israel wants to set new rules in regional relations.

These include zero tolerance for Hamas, which wants Israel's destruction and which won a parliamentary election in 2006 and took over Gaza by force a year later.

"The struggle within Palestinian society, between fundamentalist zealots and modern pragmatists, will have to be settled by the Palestinians themselves," said Amotz Asa-El, a fellow at the Shalem Centre think-tank in Jerusalem.

"Until that happens, all others, and certainly the Israelis, will have to adopt a defensive strategy."

That is a widely held view in Israel, although Palestinians argue that Israel has itself exacerbated Abbas's credibility problems by continuing Jewish settlement and military crackdowns in the occupied West Bank, where Abbas's faction holds sway.

HISTORY

Deep anger towards Israel in Gaza, where Islamic ideas and support for Hamas have deep roots in the population, stems from a massive influx of refugees in 1948. Arabs see the war of Israel's founding as an injustice past redress, whose legacy of penury and despair has been inflamed by an Israeli-led blockade.

But a different historical episode looms larger for Israelis -- the Holocaust, and its lesson that Jews should not let their small haven-state be menaced by enemies with genocidal dreams.

"For Western minds, which are the product of a post- religious world, it is very difficult to accept that people in the 21st century still harbour pathological hatred and are prepared to die in order to deny other people the very rights to survive as a nation," said Asa-El.

"But for Israelis, the defenders of the Jews, who have historically been the targets of such hatreds, this is nothing new," he said, reflecting widely held Israeli views that their allies in the West fail to see Hamas as the threat that they do.

Israeli military losses in single figures may have helped maintain support for the war, though many analysts say anger at Hamas would help the public weather even a much higher toll.

Israel suffered setbacks in a 2006 war against Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas, kindred spirits of Hamas, so Gaza offers a chance to re-assert prestige. That this "deterrence" entails a show of wanton force squares with Israelis' belief that survival in a mostly hostile Middle East depends on military superiority.

And that strategic edge could soon face a fateful test in a showdown with Iran, which sponsors Hezbollah and Hamas and whose president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has questioned whether the Holocaust happened and said Israel should be "wiped off the map."

Iran also has a nuclear programme which Israel, widely assumed to have the region's only atomic arsenal, has hinted it could attack preemptively. That has raised speculation that the Gaza offensive, like the 2006 war, aims to deprive Iran of what could effectively be retaliatory garrisons on Israel's borders.

"Many Israelis feel that the walls -- and history -- are closing in on their 60-year-old state," said Benny Morris, a historian who angered many Israelis with pioneering research on their state's efforts in 1948 to drive out and dispossess Arabs.

Writing in the New York Times, Morris, who recently shocked liberals by suggesting that Israel's core problem is not in its policies but in the failure to confront the intransigence among its neighbours, predicted: "Given the new realities, it would not be surprising if more powerful explosions were to follow."

(Editing by Alastair Macdonald)

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