Why do Israelis Continue to Back the War? - Dr. Dahlia Scheindlin (May 30, 2024)

Dr. Dahlia Scheindlin, a scholar and writer, is an international political and strategic consultant. She has advised and conducted research on nine national campaigns in Israel over the past twenty years, and has provided research and advising for elections, referendums, and civil society campaigns in fifteen different countries. She is the author of The Crooked Timber of Democracy in Israel

Outsiders are often baffled as to why most Israelis support the war, despite the horrors Israel is inflicting on innocent civilians in Gaza. Others don’t seem able to grasp that most Jewish Israelis are so committed to the war, leading to misunderstandings: When large crowds beseech the government to prioritize hostage release, or when Israelis protest the government outright, people ask me how the peace demonstrations went. 

The confusion is understandable. Many outsiders see the war as a crazed, failed project of the Netanyahu government, fought for his political purposes with intolerable human cost. In this view, anyone protesting the government and Netanyahu must logically oppose the war. 

In reality, even Netanyahu haters, good governance lovers, putative liberal-democracy supporters, and opposition voters have enemies. They hate Hamas, and Hamas hates them back. Hamas slaughtered Palestinian citizens, Bedouin, Thai and Israeli Jewish peace activists alike. The Hamas mastermind Yahya Sinwar is responsible for the murder of the nephew of the Israeli doctor who saved Sinwar from likely death from an exploding brain tumor; Hamas is still holding the nephew’s body hostage in Gaza. I can’t speak for Sinwar, but I doubt he’s sorry. 

Therefore, at one level, the question irks me. For everything wrong with this war, I challenge outsiders to react to the horrors of October 7 without a sense of blind fury and a boundless craving for revenge. Perhaps Jesus “turn the other cheek” of Nazareth would manage. 

But that’s a baseline, a collective id. Human civilization is supposed to possess the capacity to overcome base instincts, and for two critical reasons, the instinct for war should have been tempered. First, and most importantly, political leaders are supposed to set an example for judicious, rational thought before action. They are supposed to rein in their fury, calculate options, plan near- and long-term consequences, choose a vision and convince the public to follow their lead. It’s true that after 25 years of working with politicians in many countries, I have never met such a leader, but Israel’s current crop is more cynical than most. 

Secondly, why hasn’t anything been able to penetrate the Israeli public’s immediate and even ongoing trauma – the incomprehensible death and destruction in Gaza, the children whose limbs were torn off, families living (or dying) in tents and swamps, thrice displaced, or people losing 30 family members. Why does none of it get through? 

The conspicuous, and troubling answer is that it’s not just the followers of Itamar Ben Gvir or Bezalel Smotrich who back the war. The two raging Jewish supremacist leaders ran together in the last Israeli government and won just under 11 percent of the vote in November 2022; they hold 14 seats in the Knesset. Most polls show them winning roughly the same today. Yet huge majorities of Jewish Israelis have supported the war – either believing Israel will win (although this is declining over time), believing Israel is using the right amount of force or not enough, rejecting humanitarian aid to Gaza, or believing  casualties in Gaza are justified – and their numbers far outnumber Israel’s extreme right. 

The most common go-to answer is that the Israeli media has failed to portray the misery in Gaza. This is decidedly true: morning to night, Israeli broadcast news, radio and television (mirrored on their websites and social media feeds) and print, are filled first and foremost with trauma: the Israelis who died today, then the Israelis who died on October 7. The news covers Israeli politics, the war in general, the home front, and with the remaining time – global fury at Israel, always rendered as anti-Israel ideology or anti-Semitism. When this is the daily information environment, the analysis goes, citizen- news consumers block out the savagery in Gaza. Perhaps people just don’t know.

But media neglect – while true – feels inadequate. For one, at this time in human history, news and information has never been more available than ever. Israel is blessed with an estimated 97 percent smartphone penetration rate, and it’s not Russia: media is available. Even after Al Jazeera was shut down, the not-so smart penetration rate among politicians means plenty of loopholes, and anyone can watch Al Jazeera, through live streaming on YouTube. 

The hunch that Israelis actually do know was strengthened by a survey from the Israel Democracy Institute, which found that 68 percent of Arab citizens had seen some or many pictures of destruction in Gaza; and 87 percent of Jews reported the same. The Israel Democracy Institute authors wrote cautiously: “In other words, the claim regarding the lack of exposure in the Israeli public would seem to be ungrounded.”

At a demonstration this week, the penny dropped. For the umpteenth time, I joined a tight but impassioned cluster of Israelis standing in the heart of Tel Aviv  to call for a ceasefire, with a sense of helpless anguish after Israel’s strike in Rafah on Sunday, and the inferno that killed dozens of Palestinians. Israelis passing by stopped to harass the group; one scuffled with protesters, but the one who caught my eye was different. He looked to be in his 60s, and he was neatly dressed, but fuming at whoever caught his eye. “I agree with you!!” he stormed. “I’m left-wing, ok? I agree with 90 percent of what you’re saying here. But” – he jabbed towards two signs in the crowd – “how can you say ‘Free Gaza’? Gaza was free before October 7th, and look what they did! Gaza was free!”

This logic, it has been clear from the start, is the fact of the matter for Jewish Israelis. This isn’t a media problem from October 7 – it’s a society-wide problem, media included but not exclusively, dating from the year 2007, when the hermetic closure over Gaza began (and that’s just a start date for misreading this issue). The problem is seeing and naming reality, collectively. Blame Hamas for being a terror group that carried out suicide bombings of civilians and fired rockets at them, to prompt Israel’s policy, sure, but at least admit what the policy of blockage and closure was. Some of us didn’t believe the costs to innocents was worth it for all those years, and after October 7th, I myself wondered what in the world the policy had accomplished even according to the security logic. 

There can be no real excuses for hiding this truth, for lying to ourselves all these years. The evidence was there. Human rights groups documented the policy exhaustively, filed Freedom of Information requests and won the release of information, and published their reports. Israelis all knew about those who tried to break the siege, like the Marmara flotilla in 2010; they should have known there was a closure, and asked themselves what happened over time. 

Nothing justifies what Hamas did on October 7, and nothing ever will. Unrelated, Israel needs to unlearn what it got wrong all these years – for the sake of naming facts, and for the sake of figuring out what to do now. The record must be set straight: Israel did not “give the Palestinians” a state, or independence, or even effective control over their lives, during the Oslo process. Israel did not “give them Gaza,” in any manner that could have led to Singapore by the Mediterranean. 

Hamas did steal funds, build tunnels, and plot horror. But multiple ill-intentions don’t make a right, and Israel needs to start looking reality in the eye – to make better choices in the future.