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8 January 2009

Voices from an unwinnable war

Until now, young Israelis have been able to ignore the plight of Palestinians in Gaza. The invasion

By James Macintyre

Within an hour of Israel’s ground invasion of Gaza on Saturday 3 January, word had spread around downtown Jerusalem. Young people who would normally be out socialising returned home or remained there to watch the TV news. Everyone you meet in Jerusalem and beyond is obsessively following the events in Gaza: what the daily newspaper Haaretz is calling “the First Gaza War”.

For nearly all Jews in Israel, the connection is very personal. Because of conscription, with the exception of those in the tiny, ultra-Orthodox religious minority, almost everyone will themselves have served or be serving, or expect to serve in the army, or have children or relatives who do. Yael Aviv, a 26-year-old part-time waitress at Mona’s, a fashionable nightspot, shudders as she describes learning of the deployment from a colleague.

“It gives me the shivers,” she says. “I know someone down there [at the border, where thousands of troops are amassed] and I have many friends who are soldiers. Tomorrow I’ll go to college and we will all be talking about those we know who are serving.”

Picking at an eggplant salad, Ouria Tadmor, a 31-year-old photographer, expresses his fears for his family in the south. His mother and brother – who has three children – live in Yavne, close to Ashdod, which the Hamas rockets have targeted for the first time. He himself grew up in Beer Sheva, also hit (also for the first time) just before the ground invasion.

“There is nothing they can do – they each have a bomb shelter in their home; the kids don’t go to school and don’t leave the house,” he says. “My mother is deaf in one ear and doesn’t hear the alarms.” And why are there so few people out in what is Jerusalem’s rough equivalent of Leicester Square? “As long as it’s only the air force attacking [Gaza], people don’t really care. But as soon as the kids go in, everybody watches.” Yael agrees. “I prefer not to see the news all day, but I am following this,” she says.

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It is hard to find Israelis who – for now, at least – do not support the confrontation with Hamas. People want an end to the rocket fire that has killed 24 in Israel since the beginning of the second intifada in September 2000 (though many would acknowledge that this is a modest number compared with the hundreds, some claim thousands, of Palestinian civilian casualties in Gaza over the same period). And there is national pride, too, assuaging the failure of the outgoing prime minister Ehud Olmert’s prolonged war against Hezbollah in Lebanon during the summer of 2006.

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Both Ouria, who describes himself as a “liberal centrist”, and Yael, who craves a peaceful settlement with the Palestinians, support the troop invasion of Gaza. “If you do something, you’ve got to do it right,” says Ouria. This view is backed by polls, which – at the time of writing – show a little more than half of all Israelis supporting the Gaza operation. Figures published in Haaretz put support at 53 per cent, even though only 19 per cent had said they wanted a ground invasion before it took place.

This relative unanimity among Israelis has palpably increased the tension with Palestinians in neighbouring occupied East Jerusalem. As protests began to spill over into the Old City early this month, armed soldiers hurried towards al-Aqsa Mosque, where Muslims were gathering for Friday prayers.

In secular Tel Aviv, however, the war feels a long way away. Hamas militants in Gaza may chant “Bomb Tel Aviv” but it is an oasis of indifference. I visit a former soldier who describes the general mood in the city as “denial”. “You could live in this seaside, modern city without thinking about the conflict for a minute,” he says. “We live in a bubble.”

Bubbles occasionally burst. His girlfriend was late for our meeting because, just down the coast in the ancient Arab town of Jaffa, the bus in front of hers was rocked back and forth by angry protesters. And as the troops went in on Saturday night, several thousands held a ceasefire rally in the square where the former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated.

As Israel risks another military quagmire amid growing condemnation from abroad – with more dead soldiers and apparent defeat because the rockets from Hamas have not stopped landing in southern Israel – it is a stand-off that is too much to bear.

In the near-empty bar of Mona’s, Ouria says he’s had enough of living in a divided city and within an hour of the destruction in Gaza.

For the first time, he has “no one to vote for” in next month’s elections, elections that cynics believe explain the timing of this war. “I’m actually looking for a European wife and to get the hell out of here,” he says with a sardonic smile. “You should write that down, because quite a lot of my generation feel as I do but they won’t say it.”

Photo by Quique Kirszenbaum