Emergency Routine

Israelis are once again going to war, even as they admit no sweeping victories are on the horizon.

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

ASHDOD, Israel — "The State of Israel does not bow its head to terror," read the handmade sign held up by the young boy on the television screen.

The child was one of 15,000 yellow-clad fans who packed the home arena of basketball powerhouse Maccabi Tel Aviv on Nov. 15 to take in the weekly EuroLeague game against the Spanish. A day earlier, Israel had begun Operation Pillar of Defense, a major offensive against militant groups in the Gaza Strip, who responded by launching barrages of rockets against towns and cities in Israel’s south. Tel Aviv, too, was targeted by long-range missiles just a few hours prior to tipoff. High-pitched air-raid sirens went off, and the normally languid Tel Aviv locals ran for cover. It was the first time in 21 years that Israel’s largest city had been under missile fire.

The basketball game, however, went ahead as scheduled.

Israel is once again at war, yet civilian life continues — more anxious, more subdued, but unpanicked and resolute. At this point, 23 Palestinians and three Israelis have been killed in the violence, and Israel is taking the first steps toward a ground invasion. Holding a basketball game in the midst of a war might seem flippant — if not insane — elsewhere, but not in Israel. The message on the young boy’s sign could be considered a national ethos, and a point of stubborn pride.

In a sports kiosk in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod, a few hardy regulars watched the basketball game on one television. A second television had the news on, providing running updates about the war taking place less than 20 miles to the south ("In the past hour the IDF bombed 70 targets in Gaza" read the headline at the bottom of the screen). Outside, the streets of Ashdod — one of the primary rocket targets in recent years and especially in recent days — were mostly quiet. The kiosk was one of the few places open in the city of 200,000 people, serving up coffee, beers, and betting forms to a trickle of customers.

At one point, an air-raid siren went off, indicating an incoming rocket. The half dozen customers unhurriedly walked inside within the allocated 45-second time frame prior to impact. A few took cover behind the counter, others in a little nook next to two customers playing slot machines. The two punters continued pumping coins into the slots, oblivious to the ensuing hollow boom overhead. The projectile had been intercepted in midair by the Iron Dome anti-rocket system — there was no impact on the ground. Everyone went back to watching the game.

The customers, like others throughout Ashdod and Israel’s south, weren’t unconcerned, exactly — just jaded. They were veterans of such rocket barrages and had been living with the threat for years: thousands of rockets from Gaza coming at them in periodic low-level escalations between the Israeli army and Hamas.

In Israeli minds, the rockets are the central reason for the current, elevated hostilities. Two such rounds of fighting had already taken place over the past month prior to Nov. 14’s eruption.

"We will not accept a situation in which Israeli citizens are threatened by the terror of rockets," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated on the war’s first night. "It’s a routine that we cannot live with," the mayor of Beersheba, the largest southern city and a lightning rod for rockets, said separately. One government minister summed up the attitude simply (and given the country’s large Arab minority, who are also in harm’s way, discriminatorily): "You can’t kill Jews with impunity."

The majority of Israeli citizens overwhelmingly agree with such emotions. People’s patience, especially in the south, seems to have run out long ago; the Netanyahu government is now responding to popular sentiment. Re-establishing deterrence is the name of the game: The plan since the beginning of the war is to hit Hamas and the other Gaza-based militant groups hard — hard enough so that their military capability is eroded, hard enough so that they think twice before launching rockets in future.

"In this jungle [the Middle East] there’s no shortage of bad people," the Haaretz daily quoted Defense Minister Ehud Barak as saying. "You can’t fight against such people according to the rules of a nunnery."

It remains to be seen what fighting yet another war in the Gaza Strip according to such rules can accomplish. But the Israeli government is about to try, and Israelis of all political stripes remain overwhelmingly in favor. Opposition politicians, who up to a few days ago were excoriating Netanyahu as "dangerous for Israel," are now rushing to television and radio studios, voicing complete support for the government. It was a surreal sight to see Shaul Mofaz, the leader of the opposition Kadima party, lauding Netanyahu on television as a bus with his campaign ad drove by my Tel Aviv flat: "Bibi will get us into trouble," it read, juxtaposed with an image of a giant orange mushroom cloud.

It wouldn’t be cynical to view Israel’s military offensive as a boon for Netanyahu’s and Barak’s political fortunes; an election campaign previously dominated by social and economic issues has now been wholly taken over by security concerns. The Israeli public, however, doesn’t seem to mind — they just want the rockets to stop.

It was with a sly bemusement, bordering on schadenfreude, that the customers of the kiosk in Ashdod watched the incoming reports of missiles over Tel Aviv. In their minds, the government failed to take concrete action on their behalf for years to stop the rockets raining down from Gaza. "Let [the rockets] fall," one young man said, as he watched images of Tel Avivis running for cover. "They should wake up." "It shouldn’t hit anywhere," an older gentleman retorted softly, as he took a drag from his cigarette.

A third man, the owner of the kiosk, summed up the current national mood: "Today it’s here [in the south], then Tel Aviv, and tomorrow it’ll come from the north [i.e. Lebanon]. It’s the whole country."

On Nov. 16, two more rockets were fired at Tel Aviv. Later in the day, air-raid sirens blared in Jerusalem, and a rocket fell just to the south of Israel’s capital. All the while, intense rocket barrages have continued in Israel’s south. Overhead, the sound of fighter jets zooming toward Gaza mix with the thuds of Iron Dome intercepts. Army reserve units are steadily being called up — the government is currently seeking approval to call 75,000 reservists into action — in anticipation of a lengthier, bloodier ground campaign. Military officers appear in uniform on television, reminding the Israeli home front to dutifully follow instructions and to take cover in bomb shelters and safe rooms the second they hear an air-raid siren. (The only three Israeli casualties so far were due, tragically, to people not following these instructions.)

The government is urging people to follow the quintessentially Israeli idea of an "emergency routine": Remain alert, minimize outdoor activities (especially in the south), but go on with daily life. Like the little boy with the sign at the basketball game, Israel has no intention of bowing down to terrorism. Noble as this idea may be, it’s unclear that once the current war ends, Israel will be any nearer to being rid of terrorism. The best Israelis are hoping for, at present, is just a little more quiet.

Neri Zilber is a journalist covering Middle East politics and an adjunct fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Twitter: @NeriZilber

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