During the first week of Israel’s winter military operation in Gaza, a broadcaster for ChanNel 2, which has the highest rating of Israel’s three television stations, sparked a small firestorm by expressing what was perceived as excessive sympathy for the enemy. Summarizing a report during the evening news, anchorwoman Yonit Levy said, “It’s hard to convince the world that the war is justified when we have one person dead and the Palestinian nation has 350 dead.” Channel 2 was soon inundated with letters of complaint and came under fire online, where somebody set up an Internet petition to have Levy fired. Several of Levy’s colleagues, horrified by what one called a “lynch,” came publicly to her support.
In the end the controversy was short-lived: Levy continues to anchor the Channel 2 news broadcast, which maintains its high ratings, and she remains Israel’s most popular news anchor. But the reaction to her statement is interesting as a demonstration of the solid public support—polled at more than 90 percent—for the twenty-two-day military operation, which finished with around 1,200 to 1,400 Palestinians killed and 11 Israelis, including 3 civilians. It also suggests what kind of wartime coverage the Israeli public wanted from its media.
Operation Cast Lead, the army’s computer-generated name for the military incursion, was widely perceived as a necessary war. The goal was to deter Hamas, which controls Gaza, from continuing an eight-year campaign of launching Qassam rockets at Sderot and the communities of southern Israel. Ari Shavit, a respected columnist for the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper, wrote that it was a “just campaign,” and that Israelis who opposed it were “anti-Israel Israelis.”
The catalyst for the operation came in mid-December, when a shaky six-month truce collapsed and a massive barrage of rockets launched from Gaza landed in the Sderot area, which had been relatively quiet for nearly half a year. Israel launched its military response mid-morning on Saturday, December 27, with an aerial bombardment of Gaza that continued for one week, followed by a two-week ground incursion.
The day after the initial bombardment, the front pages of Israel’s three main newspapers featured banner headlines about a well-planned military operation that surprised the enemy. Haaretz, a daily broadsheet, announced, “IDF Launches Surprise Attack Against Hamas: About 100 Targets Destroyed in Largest Air Strike Since 1967.” The Six-Day War of 1967 was Israel’s greatest military success; and it, too, was launched with a surprise attack that gave Israel the winning advantage. Yedioth Aharonoth, a popular liberal tabloid that is often called Israel’s “national newspaper,” announced “Tunnels Destroyed”—referring to the underground routes used to smuggle weapons into Gaza from Egypt. The headline on the front page of Maariv, a center-right tabloid second to Yedioth in popularity, read simply, “Fighting Back.”
Ofer Shelah, a prominent Israeli journalist and political commentator who writes for Maariv, explained why Israelis felt they needed to fight back. “Israelis see themselves as being under constant existential threat from the Arab and Muslim world,” he said. “It was very easy to sell the idea that Hamas represented the southern version of the Islamist threat, rather than defining it as an isolated case of the Palestinian movement—which, while it does not recognize Israel and does believe in using terror, cannot and will not ever threaten Israel’s existence.” He continued, “I suppose it sounds strange that a country with a nuclear arsenal and a defense budget of $12 billion a year sees a small militia that only manufactures primitive rockets as an existential threat, but that’s the way it is,” he said. “And then you add the fact that the rockets have been coming in for eight years, without us being able to stop them, and you have a volatile combination.”
Few Israelis remembered that the IDF had fought back all along. More than 1,200 Gazans were killed in aerial bombardments and limited ground incursions carried out by the IDF over the three years preceding Cast Lead, while the borders were kept sealed and a siege was imposed. The media reported all the incursions and fatalities, but there was, as Shelah put it, a huge gap between what the public heard and what the public absorbed. There was also a pervasive belief that there must be a way to stop the rockets by force.