'Witch hunt' against Israel's war critics

Jerusalem (AFP) - In Israel, dissent against the war in Gaza is bitterly quashed. The few who speak out complain of being harassed, intimidated or even sacked. The once mighty left has disappeared.

It has been Israel's deadliest conflict in years. More than 1,960 Palestinians were killed and 64 Israeli soldiers died fighting what some see as an unwinnable war.

And yet the only significant protest in Israel so far saw thousands late Thursday demand an end to Hamas rocket attacks, dissatisfied with the status quo after ground troops pulled out and a ceasefire was extended.

Liberal newspaper Haaretz decried Friday what it called a "witch hunt" against leftists and civil rights organisations after the director of the national service administration, Sar-Shalom Jerbi, told rights group B'Tselem it was being blacklisted as an employer.

"I feel obligated to exercise my power and stop the state assistance provided to an organisation that works against the state and against soldiers who are heroically giving their very lives to protect the safety and well-being of all citizens," Jerbi wrote in a letter.

He accused B'Tselem of disseminating lies and slander, endangering the state and publishing information that encourages Israel's enemies and leads to violent anti-Semitic acts against Jews around the world.

The rights group denounced the move as an attack on Israeli democracy, and asked supporters to sign an online petition to support freedom of expression and democracy.

Yizhar Beer of the Keshev Centre for the Protection of Democracy in Israel says it has never been more difficult to voice dissent in a country which prides itself on being the only democracy in the Middle East.

- Overwhelming support for war -

Israeli public opinion has overwhelmingly supported the war. A poll carried out by The Israel Democracy Institute last month said 95 percent of Israeli Jews believed the offensive was just.

In a country with compulsory national conscription, almost everybody has a friend or relative in the army.

Hamas rocket attacks have tormented millions of Israelis, inflicting fear and panic in border communities, regardless of the fact that hundreds are shot down and just three civilians have been killed since July.

In Israel, as in most countries during time of war, the local media have been patriotic champions of the offensive, uniting behind their boys on the frontline, sending them presents, highlighting the suffering of Israeli citizens and downplaying suffering on the other side.

The few who have spoken out of line have been threatened or denounced as traitors.

After Haaretz commentator Gideon Levy accused air force pilots of perpetrating "the cruelest (and) most despicable deeds" against Gaza's weakest and most helpless," his employer hired him bodyguards.

Readers cancelled their subscriptions, people stopped in the street to insult him and government whip Yariv Levin denounced him as a liar, a "mouthpiece of the enemy" who should be put on trial for treason.

"I have never faced such aggressive reaction, never," Levy told AFP in his cramped office at Haaretz in Tel Aviv, away from the coffee shops where he fears being insulted.

"Nobody cares here about the suffering of Gaza. More than this, if you dare to express empathy you are a traitor," he said.

- Intimidation kept people away -

Some Israelis who criticised the offensive, even on private Facebook pages, complained of being ostracised.

An Arab Israeli nurse was briefly suspended then reinstated. Other Arab Israelis also complained of being sacked.

"There's a whole level of intimidation that's kept a lot of people away," said Steven Beck of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel when asked why there had not been more protests.

He likened the atmosphere to the period directly preceding the assassination of prime minister and Nobel peace laureate Yitzhak Rabin, shot dead by a Jewish extremist in 1995.

"Things that were shocking back then, really, really shocking have become common place... now the needle is moving to a whole new level to the extreme," Beck said.

"The question is, is it going to boil over into something or will it dissipate."

Explanations are complex.

For Beer, it is rooted in the growth of the religious right and ultra-Orthodox communities, the powerful Jewish settler movement and the ongoing occupation of the West Bank.

"The extremist section of Israeli society has kidnapped the state of Israel," he said.

But even Israelis who back peace talks feel helpless.

Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, does not officially recognise the Jewish state's right to exist, and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas is considered too weak to cut a settlement.

"Pressure from the inside and pressure from the outside makes our society very broken," said Beer.