‘We are divided’: unity in Israel fades as war in Gaza approaches ninth month

<span>Protests were held across Israel on 25 May, including in Tel Aviv, with calls for an immediate hostage deal and early elections.</span><span>Photograph: Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu/Getty Images</span>
Protests were held across Israel on 25 May, including in Tel Aviv, with calls for an immediate hostage deal and early elections.Photograph: Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu/Getty Images

In what appears to be a burnt-out building in Gaza, with Hebrew graffiti on the walls reading “Kach” and “Kahane”, references to an infamous Jewish supremacist and his outlawed political party, a masked soldier addresses Israel’s defence minister.

“Yoav Gallant, you can’t win the war. Quit. You can’t command us,” the man says in a long clip posted to social media on Saturday, in which he pledges loyalty to the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Another 100,000 reservists would mutiny, he warned, if wavering elements of the government such as Gallant scuppered Netanyahu’s goal of “complete victory” over Hamas.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has opened a criminal investigation into the video, which was shared by the prime minister’s outspoken son Yair. The reservist’s behaviour was a “serious violation of IDF orders and IDF values”, the IDF said in a statement.

Related: Israeli hostages’ families release footage of female soldiers captured on 7 October

In Israel’s deeply polarised society, split along ethnic, religious and political lines, the military is supposed to be “the people’s army”, an apolitical melting pot that brings the country together. But as the war against Hamas approaches its ninth month, the national unity on display in the aftermath of the Palestinian militant group’s 7 October attack has faded.

“We are a politically divided society and sadly, I think we are most divided over the most important things,” said Simcha, 45, visiting Jerusalem’s open-air recreation district, First Station, on a hot day last week. “When it comes to the war and the problems in the Middle East, we are divided over how to solve it … I don’t know if there is even a solution.”

A shopper, Yifrat, 67, said: “There is hate and aggression on all sides. I don’t know how we can come back together after this. I’m not sure there is ever victory in war.”

The longer the war drags on, without any concrete plan for the day after, the lower morale drops. Talks to free the 100 or so remaining Israeli hostages have repeatedly collapsed, while Hamas and Lebanon’s Hezbollah are still disrupting daily life with rocket attacks.

While polling from October suggested that 70% of Israelis believed the country should fight until Hamas was “eliminated”, a May survey by the Midgam Institute, a market research and polling company based in Bnei Brak, east of Tel Aviv, found that 62% now believed “total victory” in Gaza was impossible.

Demonstrations were held across Israel on Saturday night in which protesters demanded an immediate hostage deal and early elections. In Tel Aviv, seven people were arrested after lighting a bonfire at a major motorway junction.

The war’s “strategic drift” has been accompanied by a plummeting in Israel’s global standing over the death toll and humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Last week was particularly bruising for the Jewish state on the world stage. The international criminal court’s prosecutor’s office said it was seeking arrest warrants for Netanyahu and Gallant, as well as for senior Hamas officials; the European countries Ireland, Norway and Spain formally recognised a Palestinian state; and the international court of justice, which arbitrates disputes between countries, ordered a halt to Israel’s devastating new offensive on the southern Gaza city of Rafah.

For many shoppers at First Station’s farmers’ market, the growing international censure made no sense. “The international community is loony,” said Keren, 48. “Israel is a democratic country, Arabs here have the same rights as Jews. It’s like they’re giving a present to the terrorists.”

Shoshana, 55, a stallholder selling organic skin products, said she did not like Netanyahu – a view shared by 71% of the public, according to polls released last month, who believe he should resign immediately or right after the war ends. The longtime prime minister sees remaining in office as his best chance of beating corruption charges, which he denies; he is hostage to his far-right coalition partners, who say they will collapse his government if concessions are made in the war against Hamas.

The fact that the ICC was considering charging Netanyahu with war crimes and crimes against humanity still set a dangerous precedent, Shoshana said. “We are not a banana republic, we have the rule of law and a court system. If they go after the leader of a democratic country, then what’s next? China getting Taiwan’s president put on trial? This decision could destroy the world order.”

For Israel’s small Jewish anti-occupation and anti-war bloc, this week’s international developments have for the most part been welcomed. In a statement, the respected human rights organisation B’Tselem said: “The era of impunity for Israeli decision-makers is over.”

At a small demonstration in Jerusalem on Friday afternoon, one prominent activist, who asked not to be named given the political climate, wondered whether the pro-Palestine steps taken by the international community this week would lead the Israeli political establishment and the majority of society to double down on refusing to contemplate a return to peace talks or recognising Palestinian statehood.

“This week 105 members of the Knesset voiced their support for Bibi, even those that hate him,” he said, using the prime minister’s well-known moniker. “I think it’s easier for Israelis to rally together against the ICC and the ICJ than it is to think about the evidence of war crimes.

“Even for me, it was hard to listen to the ICJ charges [of genocide, brought by South Africa]. I felt deep shame and embarrassment. Looking in the mirror like that is hard, and it takes time for opinions to change.”

• This article was amended on 27 May 2024. An earlier version said incorrectly that Norway was an EU member state.