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Cracks in the consensus

Al-Ahram Weekly, 3 - 9 August 2006, Issue No. 806

Jonathan Cook examines the fissure in Israeli support for the war in Lebanon since its outbreak

Israel's Jewish and Arab citizens have largely lined up on opposite sides. Polls show as many as 90 per cent of the country's Jews back further attacks on Lebanon to crush the Shiite militia Hizbullah. There have been no equivalent surveys of Arab opinion inside Israel, but straw polls by Arab radio stations reveal that 70 per cent of listeners favour Hizbullah, or the very least believe Israel is waging a war of aggression.

The first cracks in the Jewish consensus over the war have been visible in the past few days too, with a spate of protests across Israel -- still small at this stage but attended by both Jews and Arabs -- to oppose the fighting.

Some 2,000 protesters staged a rally in Tel Aviv on Saturday, the day before the massacre of more than 60 Lebanese civilians in the town of Qana by Israeli war planes. That massacre and daily reports of attacks on Lebanese civilians are likely to bring out more people to the streets in the days and weeks ahead.

Even on the right, voices of dissent are starting to be heard. Several factors appear to be feeding concerns: the war has not been won quickly, as Israel's leaders promised; the war aims have been repeatedly changed, from the "obliteration" of Hizbullah to its "weakening", and now the need for an international peacekeeping force in south Lebanon; northern residents are angry at being locked up in shelters for days on end, or forced to leave their homes; and there is resentment that the authorities are being evasive about whether they will reimburse the wages of those who have been unable to get to work.

Most Israeli Jews have been outraged by what they perceive to be widespread support among the Arab minority for Hizbullah, and admiration for its leader, Hassan Nasrallah. Nearly half of Israel's 1.2 million Arab citizens live in the Galilee, and are therefore already in range of Hizbullah's rockets.

That support was not eroded by a rocket that landed in Nazareth killing two brothers, Mahmoud and Rabiah Taluzi, aged three and seven, a week into the fighting, on 19 July. Two other Arab citizens have been killed in rockets strikes, one in Haifa and the other in Maghrar.

Comments by the father of the two Nazareth boys, Abdel Rahim Taluzi, praising Nasrallah have particularly shocked Israeli Jews. He has said of his son's deaths: "It was an Arab rocket, but it's Israel's war. We hold Israel responsible for all of this."

Israel's failure to provide air raid sirens and bomb shelters in northern Arab communities, including in Nazareth -- a reflection of the much wider discrimination against the Arab population -- have further alienated the minority during the war.

Also, many Arab citizens believe that Hizbullah's prime intention is not to hurt civilians, Arab or Jews, despite the claims of their government.

"Hizbullah are striking at very specific Israeli targets, though no one in the media is reporting the fact," said a local human rights activist from Nazareth who wished to remain anonymous, but expressed a widely shared view. "The Galilee is full of military installations Hizbullah are trying to hit with missiles. Two bases are close to Nazareth, and most people realise that was what was being aimed for when the two boys were killed.

"Even in Haifa, the rockets are mostly landing down in the port area, where Hizbullah clearly know there are important military facilities. Nasrallah is trying to damage Israel's military and economic infrastructure as a small taste of what Israel is inflicting on Lebanon."

It is impossible to report what Hizbullah has been targeting in Israel, and how close their rockets have been to military bases, because of the country's strict military censorship laws.

Widespread sympathy for Hizbullah among the Arab population has been reinforced by watching the Arab satellite channels, which have broadcast Nasrallah's speeches in full. "We can hear what Nasrallah actually says and it's very different from what he's reported as saying in the Israeli and Western media," said Maha Qupty, a charity fundraiser and member of Nazareth's Christian community.

"He has a sophisticated view of Israel, particularly for someone in the Arab world. He is always careful to refer to 'Zionists', not 'Israelis' or 'Jews', because he understands that not all Israelis are Zionists and not all Israelis are Jews.

"Israeli TV, by contrast, selectively quotes from his speeches and, worse, misquotes him. As fluent Arabic and Hewbrew speakers, we find that really annoying and it makes us less prepared to trust what we hear from Israel. Certainly it's clear to us Nasrallah is not the fanatic he is painted by the Israeli media."

That large gap in the two comunities' understanding of events has kept tensions high throughout the war. During Monday's session of the Knesset, three Arab members were expelled from the chamber. One, Jamal Zahalka, was escorted out after calling out "Stop the war!"

Another Arab MK, Abbas Zakur, was stabbed on Saturday by Jewish youths in the city of Acre as they chanted anti-Nasrallah slogans.

In the wake of the Lebanon war, Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the rightwing party Yisrael Beiteinu party, has repeated his calls for the Arab MKs to be put on trial for sedition. The Knesset is currently rushing through new legislation to make it illegal for MKs to support "terror organisations", the classification Israel uses for both Hamas and Hizbullah.

Nonetheless, the first signs of the Jewish consensus cracking are visible. At the weekend, Amir Fester, the first reserve soldier to refuse the army's call-up since the outbreak of the war in Lebanon, was jailed for 28 days. The refusenik organisation Yesh Gvul said another 10 soldiers had contacted them about refusing.

More than 600 people, including professors and senior members of Israel's most leftwing party Meretz, have signed an international petition calling for an immediate, unconditional cease-fire in Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank.

And small, local protests are being held around the country each day.

"These are the first signs of a change in public mood," said Jafar Farah, head of Mossawa, an Arab political lobbying group in Israel, who was briefly arrested last week in one of the first large protests against the war in Haifa. "People forget that it took more than 40 days before we saw the crowds of 400,000 Israeli protesters so well remembered from the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Hardly anyone was ready to demonstrate until the Sabra and Shatilla massacre. Compared to that, we are seeing many more Jews out on the streets.

"The more noticeable thing this time is the failure of the Arab population to protest. During Sabra and Shatilla, the streets of Arab towns and villages were choked with protesters but after the Qana massacre at the weekend the groups were very small. That is clearly a reflection of the fear that was sown by the Israeli police by killing 13 unarmed citizens in October 2000. People are afraid to go out again."

Farah says he is concerned at the way the war in Lebanon has overshadowed the mounting death toll in Gaza, where at least 100 people have been killed since the outbreak of fighting in Lebanon. "No one is talking about Gaza," he said. "Here it is all about degrees of tragedy. You have to lose more blood if you want to get noticed."

He says privately a few senior Israeli politicians are voicing doubts to him about the war but have refused to go public yet. "That dissent will grow. In Meretz, the party is split down the middle about whether to support the war or not. Unfortunately, we won't see really large protests until there are more massacres in Lebanon. That's a very sad reflection of the political realities in Israel."


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