Israeli public opinion: Something has changed

TEL AVIV – Awareness is growing among the Israeli public about the serious dangers caused by Sharon’s policies and actions against the Palestinians, and new opposition to it can be seen. The media are increasingly reporting facts about which they had previously kept silent.

Last Friday, both main official TV channels broadcast shocking details about the inhumane behavior of military personnel maintaining highway check points in the occupied Palestinian areas. They were shown boasting about their harassment of Palestinians seeking to pass through, and making racist remarks. Many viewers wrote letters to the press expressing deep indignation about what they had seen.

Until recently, only a relatively small core of dedicated peace activists were to be seen maintaining almost daily vigils against the Sharon government’s war crimes.

As Gila Swirsky, chair of the women’s Bat-Shalom and Coalition Against Occupation and For Peace, said in a recent article, the peace protesters used to form a fairly compact group who knew each other by name. But, she said, this has changed during the last two or three weeks.

Many more people are raising their voices in public, blaming Sharon and his cabinet, as well as the army hierarchy, for all the Palestinian and Israeli blood spilled.

In last weekend’s newspapers, 53 Israeli army combat officers and soldiers declared they will not continue fighting in the occupied Palestinian territories.

“We will continue to serve in the army when defending Israel’s security at home, but will not go on fighting for the purpose of domination, expulsion, starvation, and humiliation of an entire people,” they said.

They thus joined several hundred Israeli army personnel who prefer jail to serving the Israel settlement defense forces and oppressing their Palestinian neighbors.

The article, “Into the streets once more!” by Gideon Samet, chief political commentator of the liberal-bourgeois daily Ha’aretz, is an outstanding expression of the changed mood in the media. “Gradually,” said Samet, “Israelis are beginning to understand that something very wrong is happening around them.”

He recalled that Israelis know how to put pressure on the ruling parties, when needed – as for example in 1982 when hundreds of thousands filled city hall plaza in Tel Aviv to protest the horrors of the Lebanon war.

“The same kind of clock has now been ticking for some time. A very problematic prime minister is pushing the state toward calamity. He feeds on national anxiety.”

Samet pointed out that Sharon preaches the need for a violent, brutal policy that detests compromise with the Palestinians and that has already begun to cross the line into the realm of war crimes.

“This is not a time for Israelis who care about their future to sit silently,” he said. “It is not only their right to go out into the street against the Sharon government, it is their duty, to themselves, their loved ones, and yes, to a categorical moral imperative for the nation. The time for hesitant whispers is over. The moment to march in the streets has arrived.”

Although U.S. President Bush and his State and Defense Secretaries expressed sympathy with Sharon’s actions, the U.S. Ambassador in Tel-Aviv, Daniel Kurtzer, has publicly expressed views not far from Samet’s.

At a meeting of the permanent Academy for Israeli-Arab Friendship and Cooperation in the Kibbutz Giv’at Haviva, Kurtzer, himself a practicing orthodox Jew, received wide media publicity for telling the audience he himself is astonished at the Israeli public’s silence concerning the government’s current policy in the occupied territories.

Answering a question from the audience, Kurtzer said that it is the duty of citizens in a democratic country to pressure their elected officials, if needed. He recalled that his generation stormed the American universities and took to the streets demanding an end to the Vietnam War.

Without exaggerating this new development, I can safely report that, in the words of Hamlet, something has changed in the state of Israel. Many Israelis who before had stood aside, or even had been caught up in Sharon’s promises of peace and security, are experiencing growing enlightenment and an increased will to struggle for a positive change in official policy which would bring a real mutual cease-fire and hope for a peaceful solution.