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Overwhelming Public Support for Bombardment of Lebanon

April 15, 1996

JERUSALEM (AP) _ As Israel’s assault on south Lebanon raged for a fifth day, many Israelis cheered their government’s retaliation against rocket attacks by Shiite Muslim guerrillas.

``We have to show Hezbollah that we are strong,″ said Rachel Gremis, 71, sipping coffee with friends in an outdoor cafe in Jerusalem’s crowded pedestrian mall. ``It’s because we were timid for so many years that they got the better of us.″

Mrs. Gremis _ like other Israelis _ is nonplused by Hezbollah’s warnings of renewed attacks against Israel and Jewish targets worldwide. She said she feels like a target already, after four deadly suicide bombings in Israel in February and March.

Just six weeks ahead of Israeli elections, Prime Minister Shimon Peres seemed to be improving his chances for re-election with his tough stance against the guerrillas.

But in the north, where Hezbollah rockets are landing, many people want the government to get even tougher.

In Kiryat Shemona, the town hardest-hit by the Katyusha rockets, 34-year-old Shalom Dadon pointed to a 3-foot-wide crater gaping in the front lawn of a synagogue. The rocket also shattered stained-glass windows depicting the 12 tribes of Israel.

``Just as this grass has been burnt, these evil people have to be wiped out. They must be silenced,″ he said Monday, a black-and-white prayer shawl draped over his shoulders.

For now, Israelis in the north have bonded together in response to the rocket assaults, struggling to keep up morale.

Singers, including popular rock musician David Broza, have been performing in underground shelters, and on Monday a 13-year-old boy had his Bar Mitzvah ceremony in the cramped quarters. His mother hugged him as guests applauded.

Thousands of Israeli families have offered to host children from northern Israel.

Until now, Peres, the architect of Mideast peacemaking, had sometimes been ridiculed at home for his utopian vision of a ``New Middle East.″ He was widely perceived as ready to put peace with the Arabs ahead of Israeli security concerns.

His hard-line challenger, Benjamin Netanyahu had pulled even with him in the polls after the suicide bombings. Afterward, Netanyahu steadily hammered away at Peres’ soft spot, telling voters only the right-wing Likud Party would stand up to the Arabs and guarantee Israelis’ safety.

The military strike against Hezbollah has taken the wind of out Netanyahu’s sails, Gadi Sukenik, political analyst on Israel TV’s Channel 2, said Monday: ``He (Peres) is going around in battle dress, playing `Mr. Security’ and strengthening his weak point in the polls.″

``Mr. Security″ was the nickname of Peres’ predecessor, the late Yitzhak Rabin, who had won 1992 elections by persuading undecided voters he could make peace without taking too many risks.

While popular now, Peres’ military campaign could backfire if Israel is drawn into a protracted war of attrition with its northern neighbor and Israelis start getting killed.

Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon was one of the most divisive periods in the nation’s short history, to the same extent the Vietnam War caused a rift among Americans. More than 600 Israeli soldiers were killed.

A lone voice of dissent against the current offensive came from peace activist Uri Avnery, a former legislator and journalist. Avnery said the military campaign would only increase support for Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Monday night marked the start of Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, and some Israelis drew a connection between the persistent attacks of Islamic militants and the Nazi genocide.

Both Israeli TV stations broadcast special talk shows on the Holocaust memorial from studios in Kiryat Shemona. Peres, asked to connect the past and the present, told Channel 2: ``Now, thanks to God, we have a strong country, with a strong army. If we had had this then, the Holocaust could have been prevented.″

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