Israel’s assault on Gaza has drawn international condemnation, sparked outraged protests around the world, and even roused talk of war crimes from the United Nations. But despite the onslaught of death and destruction in Gaza and the growing number of IDF casualties, Operation Protective Edge is widely supported in Israel itself.
This support doesn’t just show up in polls; the operation in Gaza is being accompanied by public acts of violence in Israel directed towards Israeli Arabs and leftists.
Violent assaults on Palestinian citizens of Israel are commonplace at the best of times. The most horrifying recent example, of course, was the abduction and incineration of Muhammed Abu Khdeir, while public displays of opposition risk violent attacks by organised extremist groups.
The received wisdom in Israel’s public sphere seems to be that the campaign in Gaza is essential – and the violent incidents now erupting in support of it are to a large degree the result of a wave of incitement.
This incitement began in earnest with public calls for vengeance after the announcement of the murder of three Israeli youths at the end of June.
First out of the gate was prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who headed a special cabinet meeting on June 30 in which he notified the public about the deaths of the three boys. Netanyahu gave a fervent statement referring to “vengeance for the blood of a small child”, a phrase he repeated at the teenagers' funeral the next day.
This line was a nod to a poem, Al ha-Shehitah (On the Slaughter), written by Zionist poet Haim Nachman Bialik after the Kishinev Pogrom in 1903, but linked the emotive phrase to an upcoming retaliation on Hamas, who he blamed for the kidnapping – an accusation that has since been seriously questioned.
Nevertheless, the framing of a reaction to the murders as necessary and proportionate vengeance against Hamas was widely accepted.
Shortly thereafter, Noam Perel, the head of international religious Zionist youth organisation Bnei-Akiva, took to Facebook and called for the retrieval of 300 philistine foreskins. His call was inspired from the book of Samuel, when David brought to King Saul 200 foreskins to prove that he had killed as many philistines. In Perel’s view, vengeance was to take the form of ethnic violence and mutilation.
The next morning, Mordechai Kedar, a well-known Israeli academic from Bar Ilan University who frequently appears in the Israeli and international media, was interviewed on Israeli public radio – and argued that the only thing that could deter a Muslim terrorist was “the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped” as a consequence of his actions.
At about the same time, the Jewish Home party’s Ayelet Shaked published on her Facebook page an article written during the Second Intifada by the late religious Zionist publicist Uri Elitzur, arguing that the state of affairs with the Palestinians was a state of war, with the “enemy” supported by a wide social network – and therefore all of them should be eliminated.
Returning from the funeral of the three youths, Jerusalem councilman Arye King addressed a large crowd of Lubavitchers in Jerusalem and called on them to repeat the deed of biblical priest Phineas – who killed of his own initiative, noting that he is certain there are a lot of “small Phineases here”.
On that evening, anti-Arab riots began in Jerusalem, and by the morning of July 2, Muhammed Abu Khdeir was dead.
When Operation Protective Edge started a week later, the harsh language only intensified.
An infantry commander sent a letter to his troops in anticipation of a ground operation where he admonished the enemy as defilers of God’s name and some time after the ground offensive had begun, Dov Lior, the state-employed Rabbi of the settlement of Qiriyat Arba published a psak (ruling) permitting attacks on the civilian population in Gaza.
After being criticised for their words, some of the people behind these statements took them back. While their extreme interventions, publicly pondering revenge, murder, rape, castration, holy war and the killing of women and children, were not meant as plans for action, they have still done terrible damage. They are acts of vandalism against common sense and common morality, flashes of vaguely coherent hatred that have blurred the boundaries of acceptable public discourse.
Spurred by a mostly flag-waving mainstream media and virulent social media, and bolstered by the constant barrages of rockets from Gaza that send Israelis running to sheltered areas, this talk has stirred deep anger and frenzied emotions.
It has distracted many Israelis from considering whether the violence in Gaza is really inevitable – and turned them against anyone who opposes it.
No going back
The horrific images and reports from Gaza show that we are running out of red lines to cross. But still, 86.5% of Jewish Israelis reportedly oppose a ceasefire, and with initiatives to stop the war being stifled, the campaign does not seem to be nearing its end.
Only when this terrible fighting is over will we be able to comprehend the lasting damage this poisonous rhetoric has done. Only then will we see whether the political and ethnic extreme-right violence that has become a conspicuous feature of the public sphere will continue – and whether, after a retreat from Gaza (if there ever is one), it will be the turn of the “enemies within” – Israeli Arabs and the “disloyal” left – to take the blame.
In many ways, this would be a return to the normal state of affairs. Undemocratic anti-NGO and anti-Arab legislation have been a defining feature of Netanyahu’s government, with bills such as the NGO law, the now shelved Prawer plan for the resettlement of the Negev’s indigenous Bedouin population, the Loyalty law, and the persecution of Arab members of the Knesset.
There is no reason to expect the air to clear when the current hostilities end. Just ask the foreign minister who called for a boycott of Arab businesses, or even Dr Kedar – who, less than a week before apparently arguing for rape, asserted:
Do-gooder Israeli and international organisations emasculated the IDF’s ability to function as it should and turned it into a scarecrow that no one fears. We reached the point where every soldier and officer needs a lawyer before he blows his nose, because he might disturb the unfortunate Palestinians.
Judging by recent incidents, like the interrogations of the representatives of left wing organisations B’tselem and Rabbis for Human Rights on Israeli television (in which their call for the actions of the IDF to be investigated by Israeli authorities was taken to task as dangerous and even treacherous acts) and the suspension of Arab MK Hanin Zoabi from the Knesset for six months (an unprecedented censure), the Israeli public sphere seems to be purging itself of its democratic values.
It should not surprise us if, after the war, blame for the IDF’s casualties will be laid at the door of the Israeli left – while the marginalisation of Palestinian Israelis will continue at ever greater speed.