By Crispian Balmer
KFAR AZAR Israel (Reuters) - When 20-year-old Israeli soldier Daniel Pomerantz died in a Hamas ambush in the Gaza Strip, his small village near Tel Aviv decided they finally needed a cemetery to bury their dead.
Surrounded by hundreds of relatives and friends, some sobbing uncontrollably, his flag-draped coffin was lowered into the ground at sunset on Thursday, a lone grave in a plot of land hastily marked out by unplanted, baby fir trees.
"When a war ends, we always hope it will be the last one," said Sara Mozes, who was born in a refugee camps in Germany after the Holocaust horrors of World War Two and moved to Israel as a baby in 1948, the year the country was founded.
"But it never ends," she said, whispering "oh my God" as she saw a phalanx of uniformed soldiers slowly pass, carrying the plain wooden coffin through the crowd.
Pomerantz was one of 33 soldiers who have died so far in the offensive launched by Israel on July 8 in an effort to halt repeated rocket fire by Hamas Islamists, who are battling to end an Israeli-Egyptian blockade of the Gaza Strip.
That toll is three times that of the last major Israeli ground incursion into the Palestinian territory in 2008/09, with each death appearing only to strengthen public resolve to hammer Hamas, halt rocket salvoes and raze cross-border Gaza tunnels.
"We have to keep going," said Guy Peled, 20, a high school friend of Pomerantz, himself still doing his mandatory military service. "There can never be peace between us and them. They are terrorists and you can't reason with terrorists."
With more than 800 Palestinians killed so far in the Israeli assault, many of them civilians, international pressure for a ceasefire is building. Yet many ordinary people here say Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must stay the course.
"I have been surprised by the number of dead soldiers, but a ceasefire now would be a disaster. The shooting would only start up again in another two years," said Shlomi Nachmias, 53, a former paratrooper and an acquaintance of the Pomerantz family.
VOICE FROM THE GRAVE
In what she described as premonition of his imminent death, Pomerantz's mother, Varda, recorded her last phone conversation with her son as he tried to brace her for his going to Gaza.
She played it for mourners, who heard him tell her he had stored a farewell a note in his phone as a precaution. In that final message, she said, he had written: "I'm so happy I was born to this family ... Stay happy for me."
Nachmias's own son, son-in-law and two nephews were fighting in Gaza, he said, and he himself had just been down to the border bringing food supplies he had collected for the troops.
His passionate support for the Israel Defense Force (IDF) is reflected in Jewish towns and cities throughout Israel, where it is admired for promoting unity in an often fractious society.
In nearby Tel Aviv, whose citizens have had to repeatedly rush to their shelters over the past three weeks as sirens warn of imminent rocket attack, that backing is clear to see.
"IDF, the people are with you" say messages that flash up on signs for car parks normally used only to signal free spaces. Elsewhere, large billboards once covered with ads now carry slogans supporting the war effort.
"I will pursue my enemies, and overtake them. Neither will I turn again until they are consumed," reads one huge sign near army headquarters in Tel Aviv - a quote from the Book of Songs that underscores the biblical significance some give to Israel's seemingly eternal struggle against Palestinian militants.
But the patriotic fervor that grips Israel might also be helping to fuel extremism and hatred.
Right-wing activists hurled eggs at a small anti-war demonstration in Tel Aviv last weekend, while further up the coast, the deputy mayor of Haifa and his son, who are Israeli Arabs, were beaten up at another leftist peace rally.
"The mood is horrible. We have been washed by a wave of hostility. People here have lost their patience, but also, I fear, their sense of democracy," said Rotem Avrutsky, 43, a documentary film maker.
He attended Thursday's funeral out of respect for Varda Pomerantz, a retired army grief counselor who had helped his family after the death of a brother in the 1973 Middle East war.
"There are horrible things being written on Facebook and social media. Sometimes you see it on the street too. When people are afraid to speak their mind it is bad for everyone. This is what is happening now," Avrutsky said.
Israeli media have got staunchly behind the troops and few dissenting voices are heard on the airways.
When veteran leftist Gideon Levy gave a TV interview from the streets of the southern city Ashkelon - the target of repeated missile strikes - a member of the public berated him as he tried to speak. "You're a traitor," he said angrily.
ANGER AND DISBELIEF
While international TV stations are showing a daily diet of suffering and death among Palestinian civilians, wall-to-wall coverage in Israel has been more sparing with such images.
Instead it focuses on live shots of intercepts from Israel's Iron Dome anti-missile system, which has managed to prevent the vast majority of Gaza rockets from hitting their targets, or else grainy military video of IDF bombs homing in on Gaza.
When Israeli human rights group B'Tselem tried to buy ad space on state radio to read out the names of children killed in Gaza by the assault, the national broadcaster refused, saying it could strengthen claims Israel was to blame for the bloodshed.
Suggestions from the United Nations that Israel might be committing war crimes are met with a mix of anger and disbelief.
Hamas is to blame because they are hiding behind civilians, person after person will tell you. Others accuse the outside world of hypocrisy, always ready to accuse Israel of wrongdoing while turning a blind eye to the slaughter in Syria's civil war.
"We are used to people pointing a finger at us, but this time everyone must realize what we are going through," said Floria Spektor, 46, an IT system administrator.
Her sons went to the same school as Pomerantz. One had just completed his military service and another was about to start. "Of course I worry about them, but they have to go. They have to protect our country," she said.
Spektor came to Israel 23 years ago, part of a huge wave of Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union. She lives barely 30 km from the West Bank and 80 km from Gaza, whose Palestinian inhabitants are largely barred from entering Israel.
Asked if she had ever met a Palestinian, Spektor paused for a moment. "No," she said. Would she like to? "Not now."
(Editing by Giles Elgood)
- Unrest, Conflicts & War
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- Gaza Strip
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