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For most part, Israelis support war strategy


TEL AVIV, Israel -- As they do every Friday, jostling crowds of Israelis elbowed their way through a landmark open-air market, buying the makings of family meals to mark the start of the Sabbath. But on this day, the knowledge that the nation was again at war hung heavily in the air, along with the mingled scents of sweet loaves and scallions, fish and pickle brine.

The Israeli military offensive in Lebanon was only hours old when the holiest day of the Jewish week was ushered in July 14. At the start of this Sabbath, however, there was no mistaking the mix of casual bravado, tribal solidarity, argumentative outbursts and existential fears of Israel in full battle mode.

"They started this, and now we have to show them," said Rami Bin-Nun, a soft-spoken 35-year-old who owns a small restaurant on the edge of the sprawling Carmel Market. He was talking about the guerrillas of Hezbollah, who captured two Israeli soldiers in a border raid last week and quickly became the targets of a devastating Israeli air onslaught.

"But so far, we're not doing a very good job of showing them," said Bin-Nun, grimacing. "And that's a big problem."

Hefting ripe tomatoes and haggling over the price of parsley, shoppers in the market's narrow lanes and alleys weighed the military risks and moral consequences of the offensive, which has claimed the lives of nearly 350 Lebanese, most of them civilians, and battered the infrastructure of Israel's northern neighbor.

A new public opinion poll published yesterday in Israel's Maariv newspaper indicated that 90 percent of respondents supported the war aims of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his lieutenants. But in Israel, even what appears to be a rock-solid consensus leaves plenty of room for disputation.

"Hezbollah needs to be hit, and hit hard," began Nachrieli Amrani, a spice merchant.

His customer, Osnat Trabelsi, interrupted: "No, no, what's happening there is a war crime!"

With Israeli tanks rumbling north to the border in preparation for what could be a huge ground incursion and rockets falling on towns across the country's north, many took pride simply in staying sanguine.

"I fought in five wars. Scuds fell on my neighborhood. Terrorists bombed this market," said Amrani, the spice vendor. "I'm not panicking."

Tel Aviv, with its sandy beaches and hip cafes, sometimes seems like a hedonistic haven in a country brimming with tensions. But Hezbollah has boasted that the seaside metropolis lies within range of the group's most powerful rockets, and Israeli military officials acknowledged that could well be the case.

The response to the threat was laced with Israelis' trademark black humor. One vegetable seller joked about giving discounts to anyone from Haifa, the port hit hardest by Hezbollah rocket attacks. Previously, it was thought to be beyond the reach of the Shiite militia's weapons.

But there also were somber assessments of what many people feared could be a long military entanglement in Lebanon, where the country fought an 18-year war that is sometimes referred to as Israel's Vietnam.

"This will go on and on and on," Tzion Nisanov, a 68-year-old watchmaker, said bleakly. "Sometimes our wars are fast. I don't think this one will be."

Amrani the spice merchant, disagreed. "They'll shoot, they'll negotiate, and it will be over," he said.

However reluctantly, some people gave their endorsement to a ground offensive, though Israeli commanders have predicted substantial military casualties if troops confront Hezbollah in its stronghold of southern Lebanon.

Many people brushed aside charges that Israel was wielding disproportionate force in Lebanon, arguing that Hezbollah, together with its chief patron, Iran, poses a threat to Israel's existence.

Others said the seeds of even more intense violence and suffering were being sown in Lebanon.

"It's a never-ending story," said Bin-Nun, the restaurateur. "Maybe we are right, or maybe we can't say for sure whose fault this is. But now there are a hundred thousand people in Lebanon who have children who will grow up to hate Israel."

Laura King writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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