Israelis counter Gaza qualms with ‘grim satisfaction’


20090126220549606_1The Financial Times
January 25, 2009

As the dust settles on three weeks of war, the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have nothing over which to rejoice: buildings lie in rubble, thousands have been killed or injured and prospects for an end to the misery and violence remain slim.

In Israel, however, the war has left the population in very different mood. Whether through pride, relief or even a sense of triumph, there is no doubt that the Gaza conflict has at last made Israelis feel better about themselves, their leaders and their army.

Officials and analysts say they have been surprised by the degree of Israel’s national unity and sense of common purpose during the war. After years in which Israel as a whole was ridden by self-doubt and lurched from military setback to political infighting to diplomatic stalemate, the change in attitude is palpable.

Polls show the overwhelming majority of Israelis backed the war, which they saw as a just assault on an implacable and dangerous enemy. The approval ratings of all government politicians have shot up, while much of the country has delighted in the images, splashed across the front pages last week, of smiling Israeli soldiers riding home on battle tanks in victory pose.

“There is a sense of grim satisfaction that the army has returned to itself,” says Yossi Klein Halevy, a fellow at the Jerusalem-based Shalem Center. “The soldiers fought with more motivation than at any time since the 1973 Yom Kippur war, the home front bore up with weeks of shelling without complaint and the country was unified. Even most of the Israeli left supported the operation.”

Analysts say the key to understanding the Israeli elation of the past days lies in the country’s botched 2006 war in Lebanon. The conflict against Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia group, exposed serious failings among Israel’s politicians, generals and soldiers. It ended inconclusively but was perceived by Israelis as an embarrassing failure, and one that did much to undermine the country’s power of deterrence in the region.

As it happened, Hezbollah turned out to be sufficiently deterred not to open a second front as Israel pounded Hamas over the past month. But few doubt that the Lebanon war dealt a heavy psychological blow to a country that takes distinct pride in its armed forces and in which society and military are closely intertwined.

David Grossman, one of Israel’s best-known novelists, sees the Gaza war almost as a kind of exorcism for the collective conscience. In a front-page essay for the Haaretz newspaper, he wrote last week: “A whole country eagerly hypnotized itself, because it needed so badly to believe that Gaza would cure it of ‘Lebanonitis’.”

As a result, he argues, the images of civilian suffering among the Palestinians in Gaza now lie buried beneath a “wave of nationalist hyperbole”.

The contrast between Israeli perceptions of the war and the worldwide outrage at the country’s assault on an already impoverished territory is striking. Outside Israel, the attention has focused above all on the hundreds of dead civilians and on incidents where Israeli fire hit schools, United Nations compounds and hospitals. The apparent use of controversial ammunition such as white phosphorus has been the target of vociferous condemnation.

Several human rights groups have called for Israeli politicians and soldiers to be prosecuted for war crimes, sparking an indignant response from the government and promises of legal aid to any officers targeted in courts outside the country. The gulf separating Israel from much of the rest of the world — not just on the Gaza war — has not escaped the country’s notice.

“There is a sense of radical disconnect that most of us feel between our moral perceptions and those of the international community,” says Mr. Klein Halevy. Far from shaking Israeli certitudes, however, he says, the international condemnation has been met with “rage” and “contempt”. The question posed by Israelis is simple: “Don’t you people realize the nature of the enemy we are facing?”

Israel, he argues, will indeed have to examine whether the use of overwhelming firepower against a target such as Gaza was appropriate. But “we knew that we risked turning ourselves into a pariah, because there is no clean way to fight such a war if you want to win”.

Mr. Grossman, who lost his son in the Lebanon war, believes Israel will eventually come to share the international mood. “When the guns fall completely silent, and the full scope of the killing and destruction becomes known, to the point where even the most self-righteous and sophisticated of the Israeli psyche’s defense mechanism are overcome, perhaps some kind of lesson will imprint itself on our brain,” he argues.

For the time being, however, the lesson that Israelis take away from three weeks of war is one that has echoed throughout the country’s history: that being strong is always preferable to being popular.
The above article can be found at: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/ec8ac454-eb4a-11dd-bb6e-0000779fd2ac.html

Israelis counter Gaza qualms with ‘grim satisfaction’

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