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The View From Israel: Victors in a Necessary War

By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 11, 2009

TEL AVIV, Jan. 10 -- After 15 days of war that have left more than 800 Palestinians dead -- as many as half of them civilians, medical officials say -- Israelis are sure of two things: They are the victims, and they are also the victors.

This is an unwanted war, Israelis say, but it is necessary, and they are winning it.

Unlike in 2006, when Israelis grew bitterly split over the war in Lebanon, the invasion of Gaza has produced a rare consensus here. In newspapers and on television, commentators approvingly note that the Israeli military has sown devastation in Gaza without a high toll in Israeli lives. If Palestinians are dying, they say, it is Hamas's fault.

On the streets of this palm-shaded city, just 40 miles up the coast but a world away in atmosphere from the horrors of Gaza, residents echo that line.

"This war's been very successful. We should have done it four or five years ago," said Menachem Haygani, 47, owner of a juice stand on high-rent, high-fashion Dizengoff Street. "It's very justified. Sure, people there are suffering, but also people here are suffering."

And in the Israeli news media, the focus is squarely on the latter.

While television screens around the world display grisly scenes from Gaza of blood-smeared hospital floors and critically wounded Palestinian children, Israelis are watching a very different war. Here, images from Gaza are relatively scarce, while the plight of Israelis injured or killed during the war is covered around the clock.

"The suffering of the citizens of Gaza is unbelievable. It's hell. But we are not uninvolved. We are broadcasting for our citizens," said Reudor Benziman, chief executive of Channel 10 News, one of the two major private stations in Israel. "We don't pretend to show the whole picture, as though we are covering a war in Tanzania. It's our war."

The disparity in coverage may help explain why Israelis have been so resolute in their support for a military campaign that has still not achieved its objective of halting Hamas rocket fire and that has come under international scorn for the high civilian toll.

But to Benziman, the coverage does not shape Israeli public opinion so much as it reflects it. Relatively little airtime is given to civilian deaths in Gaza, he said, because Israelis accept the government's position that Hamas must be attacked, no matter the cost.

"You can't fight a clean war. It's not a battlefield. It's neighborhoods," he said, sitting in the station's ultramodern studios, with their panoramic views of Tel Aviv. "Civilians are on the first floor, and Hamas is in the basement. That's war."

When the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations accused Israel in the past week of obstructing the delivery of humanitarian aid in Gaza, neither allegation received much attention in the Israeli news media. But the deaths of three soldiers in one day dominated the news.

Overall, 13 Israelis have been killed since the Israeli military offensive began Dec. 27, and each death has received blanket media coverage, complete with family interviews and anguished funeral scenes.

Of the 13, four were killed by the persistent rocket fire from Gaza that Israeli officials say prompted the war. But even rockets that cause no injuries -- as is usually the case -- get extensive play on television. Benziman said that Channel 10 has camera crews stationed across the south, chasing down the remains of every rocket and going live when they find them. With an average of 30 or more rockets landing daily, rocket-chasing is a fixture of the prime-time schedule.

"Every minor injury is emphasized," said Arad Nir, foreign editor and anchor with Israel's Channel 2, the country's largest private broadcasting station. "Every incident that the soldiers are involved in is discussed at length."

The reason, Nir said, is not government pressure. It's what viewers want.

Israelis and Palestinians, longtime neighbors and adversaries, have in recent years begun to live far more separate lives. Since Israel pulled its troops and settlers out of Gaza in 2005, Israelis have been prohibited from entering the strip. Nearly all Gazans, meanwhile, have been prevented by Israel from leaving.

Since the war was launched, no foreign or Israeli journalists have been allowed into the strip, except in the company of Israeli troops. And even if Israeli television crews were permitted inside, station executives here say, there is not much interest in documenting how Palestinians are coping amid Israel's relentless bombardment.

An anchor at Channel 2 recently became the target of an online petition seeking her dismissal because her tone was considered overly sympathetic to the Palestinians. Nir said any additional coverage of the lives of Gazans "would just make people angry."

"We are Israelis broadcasting to the Israeli public," Nir said. "Among the Israeli public, unfortunately, there's no empathy for the other side."

The feeling, of course, is mutual. And the coverage on many Arabic news stations is the opposite of the coverage in Israel. Arabic stations devote uninterrupted hours every day to graphic images of Gazans whose bodies have been torn apart by Israeli air raids. Al-Aqsa TV, Hamas's station, intersperses those scenes with sermons by religious leaders who deliver fiery denunciations of the Jewish state.

But to some in Israel, a Western-style democracy where press freedoms are enshrined in law, the lack of attention paid to how Israel's campaign is affecting the people of Gaza has been troubling.

In a column in the daily newspaper Haaretz, Gideon Levy, one of the most outspoken opponents of the war, ridiculed the apparent absence of concern.

"There was a massacre of dozens of officers during their graduation ceremony from the police academy? Acceptable. Five little sisters? Allowed. Palestinians are dying in hospitals that lack medical equipment? Peanuts," he wrote. "Our hearts have turned hard and our eyes have become dull. All of Israel has worn military fatigues, uniforms that are opaque and stained with blood and which enable us to carry out any crime."

But Levy's view is in the minority here, where polls show that 80 to 90 percent of Israeli Jews support the war. Far more common is the sentiment expressed by columnist Guy Bechor, writing in Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel's largest daily, who declared a few days ago that "we have won."

"No one in the Arab world will now be able to say that Israel is weak and begging for its life," he wrote. "The images of the past two weeks have been imprinted for years, and Hamas's bravado and arrogance have gone into the tunnels along with their frightened leaders."

In the news pages of Yedioth and Israel's second-largest daily, Maariv, the focus is on Israel's troops. On Friday, both papers displayed large, full-color photos supplied by the Israel Defense Forces of the troops in action in Gaza, plus profiles of the three soldiers killed Thursday. There were no prominent pictures of Palestinians, and there was only a fleeting mention of the worsening humanitarian situation in Gaza.

In an unusual move, Maariv also carried a piece by the publisher, Ofer Nimrodi, in which he publicly apologized for a column published the day before that he felt had been overly critical of the military.

Recalling his own military service, he assured readers that Maariv is "a patriotic newspaper."

"These are days of battle, days to sacrifice blood and tears," he wrote, "not days to curse and swear the soldiers of the IDF and their officers."

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