‘We live in the Middle East where only the strong survive’

Israel’s response yesterday to Iran’s unprecedented aerial assault belies a lack of consensus among politicians which was mirrored by public attitudes to military action

The Israeli leadership this week grappled with the dilemma of how to respond to last Saturday night’s brazen attack by Iran, during which the Islamic Republic launched more than 350 rockets, cruise missiles and explosive drones at the country.

Six months ago, following the Hamas attack in southern Israel on October 7th, the murder of 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and the seizing of more than 250 hostages, according to Israeli tallies, there was a wall-to-wall consensus among the Israeli public: Israel had to hit back and hit back hard, topple the Hamas regime and rescue as many hostages as possible.

Israel’s military offensive in the Gaza Strip has killed at least 33,899 Palestinians and wounded 76,664 since October 7th, the Palestinian enclave’s Hamas-run health ministry said this week.

Last Saturday night’s Iranian missile and drone attack promised to be another traumatic event that could potentially shape the future of the Middle East for generations to come. With the rockets in the sky, Israelis braced themselves for mass casualties and unprecedented destruction.


The result was very different. Israel’s sophisticated, multilayered missile defence systems, combined with planes in the sky, including US, British, French and Jordanian aircraft, brought down almost all the projectiles before they reached Israel. No one was killed and damage was negligible.

“Take the win”, US president Joe Biden told prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, urging him not to strike back at Iran – a move that could spark an all-out war between the arch enemies and plunge the entire region into a deadly conflagration, something Washington has been trying to avoid since the October 7th Hamas attack. A similar sentiment was expressed by Israel’s European allies, including the German and British foreign ministers, who landed in Israel on Wednesday to drive the message home.

But Israeli leaders made public statements that a response was inevitable and desperately sought a formula to hurt Iran’s capital Tehran while, at the same time, avoiding a dangerous escalation. The Israeli response came in the early hours of Friday morning with a strike on a military base close to the city of Isfahan, 350km (217 miles) south of Tehran.

Earlier this week there was no wall-to-wall consensus on how to respond and Israel’s leaders held a series of meetings in an effort to come up with a plan.

The decision-makers’ dilemmas were echoed among the public, who were divided on the best course of action Israel should take.

The Israeli public had not been “gung ho” about attacking Iran, far from it. A survey by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem found 52 per cent of Israelis were opposed to a retaliation against Iran for fear that it would further escalate regional tensions.

The Israeli public’s opposition rose to 74 per cent if this counter-offensive were to jeopardise the security links with Israel’s allies that proved their worth in thwarting the Iranian attack.

Nissim Avrahami was born in Iran and moved to Israel as a child with his family. Today he lives in Jerusalem, working as a lawyer. He opposes an Israeli strike. “Not at all. The way it is, Iran already lost face twice: once with the strike on the embassy compound in Damascus and again when their attack on Israel ended in failure,” he said. On Monday, April 1st, in an attack attributed to Israel, war planes bombed the Iranian consulate in Syria’s capital city of Damascus. Iran and Hizbullah had vowed to retaliate. “We have to show the Iranian people that we are not against them. And when their regime falls the people will remember and it will be much easier to make peace.”

Isaac Kramer lives in the central city of Modi’in and works in a cutting-edge water technology company. He says Israel shouldn’t be seeking to open another front at this juncture.

“Our leadership isn’t doing what’s necessary to build a safe future for Israelis. We face threats from all directions and military responses alone, however strong, won’t achieve long-term security,” he argues. “We need an actual strategy to weaken the Iranian influence on our borders, and I’m doubtful that a strike will achieve that. Instead of opening another front, I’d prefer that we have a clear plan for Hizbullah in the north, defeating Hamas in Gaza and stability in the West Bank.”

Jerusalemite Nehama Laor Drori works for Israel’s road safety authority. She backs an Israeli attack.

“We have to hit back because the attack on Israel was unprecedented. And we have to exact a price to maintain our deterrence. The response should be measured, smart and even sophisticated. And without a lot of unnecessary noise. Quiet strength.”

Also supporting an Israel strike was Ofer, a student in Tel Aviv and a reserve captain in the paratroopers brigade, who did not wish to give his surname. “Israel does not have the luxury of not responding to the Iranian attack since there is no other land for the Jewish people to be safe. A lack of Israeli response would undermine Israel’s deterrence against hostile regional states,” he says. “Furthermore, Israel’s response to the Iranian attack would be beneficial not only to Israel, but also to Europe and the entire West. In my opinion, the only way for Israel and the western countries to prevent a catastrophic world war is to strike Iran’s assets and strategic targets, including its nuclear assets.”

Kate, who works for an American company in Israel, and also declined to give her surname, believes a powerful Israeli response could also benefit dissident elements within Iran.

“I believe a response is warranted. It seems like it is good timing for it as well. Their pathetic barrage exposed their limited ability to cause major damage to Israel and the dissent against Islam within their own country seems to be widening,” she said. “Their strength lies in their proxies. So we either continue to skirmish with their trolls on our northern and southern border for the foreseeable future – while putting our soldiers and population at risk – or deal with the puppet master directly.”

Many Israelis believe that despite the dramatic Iranian attack, the country’s top priority should remain trying to bring about the release of the hostages who have been in Hamas captivity for almost 200 days.

“With the fighting continuing in Gaza and with so many hostages, including women, children and elderly civilians, Israel should focus on exerting pressure on Hamas and do everything to get the hostages back,” says Yaniv, also a student in Tel Aviv who serves as a reservist in the paratroopers brigade, who did not provide his surname. “And while Iran was building up its offensive capabilities, Israel built up a defensive capability that was able to thwart the Iranian attack. In light of this, I think Israel should delay the attack on Iran’s Revolutionary Guards but, unfortunately, we will have to respond. We live in the Middle East where only the strong survive.”

Sid Knopf, a Jerusalemite who provides computing systems to defence companies, also thinks Israel should wait. “This was just a game by Iran and despite claims on both sides, nobody achieved anything. Israel still needs to focus on Gaza.”

Jerusalem graphic designer Liora Darom prioritises maintaining Israel’s strategic alliance with friendly western powers. “We don’t need to fight fire with fire. We showed our power with our outstanding defensive capabilities against the Iranian threat and the defensive alliance formed to thwart the attack,” she says. “We need to focus now on long-term strategic thinking. Everyone, including the Iranians, knows that the Israel Defence Forces are a strong army and if we need to exert our offensive capabilities it should be via a cyberattack.”

Asked further about the response Israel should take, the Hebrew University survey found that only one-quarter of the 48 per cent who supported a counterattack said it should take place on Iranian soil, and one in three were in favour of a strike against Iran’s nuclear sites.

Tension with Iran was already impacting Israelis. Many flights to and from the country have been cancelled, leaving tens of thousands of Israelis, who planned to return for the Passover holiday, stranded abroad. Low-cost carrier EasyJet on Tuesday cancelled scheduled flights to and from Israel until the end of October “as a result of the ongoing and developing situation”.

Other international carriers also cancelled flights, forcing Israelis to scramble for available seats. Those lucky enough to find a flight paid significantly more.

This week a neighbour’s cleaner, a Romanian, knocked on their door at 10 o’clock at night to return the key and told them he was leaving Israel the following morning. He believes the war on the various fronts will drag on for years. All his Romanian friends have already left and his family phoned him every day, urging him to take the next available flight out. He’s heading for war-free Portugal.

Mark Weiss

Mark Weiss

Mark Weiss is a contributor to The Irish Times based in Jerusalem