War on Hamas galvanises Israelis in quest for ‘total victory’

Surveys suggest majority of population are committed to the battle to defeat militants and return hostages

Avraham Levy’s stall in Jerusalem’s Machane Yehuda Market has lost more than 40 per cent of its revenues since the start of Israel’s war with Hamas. But he would rather suffer an even bigger fall than see Israel stop fighting the Palestinian militant group.

“The Arabs only understand power... After what Hamas did, we need to teach them a lesson,” said the fruit seller, arguing that if Israel failed to do so, its other enemies would “eat us alive – We need to make sure Hamas disappears. Otherwise, we’re not sending a message for them to understand”.

Levy (74) is not alone. Four months into the war, there is mounting international pressure, including from staunch allies such as the US, for Israel to rein in its offensive in Gaza, which has killed more than 28,000 people, according to Palestinian officials.

But Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu is adamant that the fighting will continue until Israel has achieved “total victory” over Hamas – and opinion surveys suggest the majority of the public remains firmly behind the war effort.

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“Certainly ... the lion’s share of the Israeli Jewish public is not in favour of pulling out of Gaza,” said Tamar Hermann, a senior research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute. “The war is perceived in Israel as a no-choice war.”

For a country that for most of last year was divided by a bitter battle over Netanyahu’s contentious plan to weaken the judiciary, the unity is striking. But the signs of national resolve are everywhere. Israelis have flocked to enrol in the country’s biggest ever mobilisation.

Businesses have donated huge amounts of food and equipment to soldiers in Gaza, even as the war has delivered a heavy blow to the country’s economy. One of the most streamed songs in recent months is about exacting revenge for October 7th.

The biggest reason for the continuing widespread support for the war is the deep sense of insecurity that Hamas’s October 7th assault – which killed about 1,200 people, according to Israeli officials – has triggered in Israel.

In the months since, Israel has regained control of the area around Gaza, and its retaliatory offensive in the enclave has displaced 1.7 million of its 2.3 million inhabitants, and reduced most of the territory to uninhabitable rubble.

But the immense suffering in Gaza has barely featured in the Israeli media, and instead the national debate remains consumed by the trauma of a day that Israeli officials describe as the deadliest for Jews since the Holocaust.

“This is a matter of survival. The October 7th hangover will be with Israelis for years, if not generations to come,” said Dahlia Scheindlin, a pollster and political analyst. “This is what trauma is. It crowds everything else out.

Indeed, rather than ending the war in Gaza, many Israelis believe the state should be escalating on another front: the northern border with Lebanon. Locals there have long feared that the powerful Iran-backed militant group Hizbullah could one day launch a similar attack to the one Hamas carried out in Israel’s south.

Hizbullah and Israeli forces have traded almost daily fire since the war broke out, and more than 80,000 Israelis have been evacuated from the area. But evacuees say they would be prepared for Israel to fight an all-out war with Hizbullah – one of the world’s most heavily armed non-state actors – if that were the price of being able to return to their homes.

“I would like the government to finish Hizbullah,” said Ruti, one of thousands of Israelis evacuated from Kiryat Shmona to Jerusalem. “If we don’t do it now, in a year from now, we’ll be the ones who disappear.”

Beyond the shock and anger of October 7th, another factor behind the continuing support for Israel’s operations in Gaza is that Hamas still holds about 130 of the 250 hostages it captured that day.

The issue dominates Israel’s public sphere – protests demanding their return are frequently held in cities such as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Posters showing the captives’ faces are plastered around the country, from Ben Gurion Airport to cafes and bus stops. The airwaves are filled with pleas from their families for help, as well as harrowing testimonies from those who have been released.

But while demands are growing, particularly from the families of hostages, for Israel to agree to a temporary pause in fighting as a way to release the captives, others are sceptical about the chances of such a deal, and believe military pressure is the only way to bring back the hostages.

“We need to make a deal. But if it’s not through a deal, then we will have to bring them back by force,” Levy said. “And we might bring back bodies. It hurts me so much to say this. But there is no other choice.”

The Israeli military has in recent weeks begun to withdraw some troops from Gaza, a move designed to give reservists respite and to ease the pressures on businesses whose operations have been hamstrung by staff being called up to fight.

But Israel’s military leaders have made clear they expect fighting to continue throughout the year, and Tali Friedman, head of the union at Machane Yehuda, said the angst triggered by Hamas’s attack ran so deep that Israelis would continue to pay whatever price was needed to restore their sense of security.

“Everyone wants their child at home,” she said. “But everyone knows that if we need to do it again, we will be there. We have too long a history that we don’t want to be repeated. The economy and businesses are in a very bad situation. But everyone is saying that, as much as we want this to end, we want it to end on the right terms, so we can feel safe.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024

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