Page last updated at 07:49 GMT, Thursday, 8 January 2009

Israelis back Gaza action - for now

By Heather Sharp
BBC News, Jerusalem

Rachel Schwartz, 48, cannot keep away from the television, and jumps whenever the phone rings.

Yoni is not allowed to say where he is now

Her son Yoni, 21, is a paramedic in an elite unit in the Israeli military. His usual daily phone calls stopped the day after the Israeli ground offensive in Gaza began.

All she has heard from him since is an SMS message, on Tuesday, that read: "Don't worry, I'm fine. I love you."

Yoni is not allowed to say where he is. She assumes he is in Gaza.

Her other son, Michael, 24, was called up as a reservist at 2330 on Saturday night, and gone by 0500 the next morning.

"I'm not doing so well," she says, when asked how she is coping. "As a mother I wish it stopped yesterday, but I know that there's a job that needs to be done."

'Heavily-supported war'

Like the majority of Israelis, according to opinion polls, Ms Schwartz fully supports Israel's operation in Gaza.

Rachel with her husband Andy
Rachel says support for the war is "unanimous" in Israel

Six Israeli soldiers and, according to Palestinian medics, more than 650 Palestinians, have died in the fighting, in which Israel is attempting to vastly reduce the Palestinian militant group's capacity to fire rockets into southern Israel.

"This is one of the few wars that I think is unanimous - I've never seen the people come together, the right-wing and the left, in this way and agree that this had to be done," she says.

Professor Asher Arian, a veteran Israeli pollster, says it is a "text book case" of a "heavily-supported war".

But, he points out, support was also soaring at the start of the 2006 war in Lebanon, which ended with intense recriminations and plummeting poll ratings for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

A few days before Israeli tanks moved into Gaza, 52% of people asked backed the air offensive, and another 19% wanted to see it expanded with ground forces.

I think the war's stupid, it's useless - there would have been a better way
Meytal Pessing

But the transition to a ground war is a critical moment, in a country where most young people serve in the military and empathy for mothers like Ms Schwartz runs deep.

"With a ground war, everybody knows a neighbour or a cousin or a son of a friend who's involved, and that gives it a much more far reaching effect," says Prof Arian.

Time to 'get out'

In one of Jerusalem's largest malls, the view among people sipping coffee in cafes and popping in and out of shops is generally consistent.

Hava Elemelech
Hava Elemelech says the war must continue until Hamas' rockets stop

Salesman Moti Bohm, 30, backs the operation completely.

"No country can allow itself to be under attack without responding. Hamas is not a country, it's just a mob of bandits," he says.

"We must continue, until the rockets stop," says Hava Elemelech, 45, a kindergarten teacher from Beersheva, one of the towns recently reached for the first time by Palestinian rockets.

"Even if Israelis have to die," she says. "You can't make an omelette without breaking an egg."

But there are those, like housewife Galit Yeshyhu, 35, who echo concerns in Israel's left-leaning media that the troops will become bogged down, casualties will rise, and the rockets will keep coming.

"I think now is the time to get out. We have done enough. The longer we stay, the more lives will be lost."

A minority oppose the war outright. Some of those are left-wingers who have held demonstrations under slogans such as "Stop the Massacre in Gaza! Stop the bloodshed and destruction!"

But there are others too, like Meytal Pessing, 25, who describes herself as "in the centre" politically. "I think the war's stupid, it's useless - there would have been a better way."

Ratings 'war'

With the operation coming just over a month before elections scheduled for 10 February, domestic politics also plays a part.

Israeli soldiers mourn over a grave of their colleague killed in Gaza
When casualties start rising, there could be an erosion of public support

The Israeli operation was launched by the government of scandal-hit Mr Olmert's centre-right Kadima party, now led by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, and Defence Minister Ehud Barak, head of Kadima's largest coalition party, Labour.

Kadima has been struggling to hold onto voters disillusioned with its founding agenda of unilateral withdrawals from occupied Palestinian areas, and particularly with the ascendance of Hamas in Gaza after the withdrawal of Israeli settlers and soldiers in 2005.

Avraham Diskin, professor of political science at Jerusalem's Hebrew University says that the operation in Gaza has boosted Mr Barak's previously languishing poll ratings at the expense of centre-right opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu.

But it has not, most pollsters say, completely wiped out the lead Mr Netanyahu has held over Ms Livni in recent months.

However, to some voters, Labour and Kadima now do not seem "as impotent as they looked before," says Prof Diskin says.

For example, prison warder Sivan Abuhatzira, 24, says "maybe" she will switch her allegiance from Mr Netanyahu to Ms Livni or Mr Barak in February.

"I didn't like them before, but they made a good decision," she says.

High stakes

But there is a more cynical interpretation.

"They did this just before the election because they want to be popular - I think it's necessary, but I think it's their strategy," says psychologist Leah Cohen, 45, who considers herself on the political right.

However, the election is still a month away - unless it is postponed because of the fighting.

And Prof Arian says everything depends on the war "endgame" - both on the ground and in the diplomatic sphere as some kind of truce is negotiated.

"If the final agreement is perceived as being premature, if [kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad] Shalit is not part of the agreement, if arms start flowing back into the Gaza Strip, if rockets start falling again - then obviously there'll be an erosion of support and a politicising of the end of the war," he says.

"And when casualties start rising, inevitably questions about the wisdom of the decision, the timing of the decision and the preparation of the forces start arising.

"It all depends on what happens," Prof Arian says.

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