Israelis feel empowered by attacks against Hamas

ASHKELON, Israel (AP) — Israel’s crushing aerial assault on Gaza has caused a significant shift in the country’s mood, replacing lingering helplessness and frustration over Hamas rocket attacks with a sense of might and vindication.

Leaders who were unpopular only a week ago have suddenly surged in the public’s esteem. But that could change quickly if the fighting drags on or Israel starts taking heavy casualties.

In downtown Ashkelon, a southern Israeli city that has come under rocket fire, a pair of plumbers hung up a handwritten sign praising the Gaza operation’s mastermind, Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

That’s a dramatic change for Barak, a former prime minister whose approval ratings were until recently so dismal that his own election slogans acknowledged he was unpopular.

“We’ve got a great defense minister. Everyone thought he wasn’t going to do anything but he tricked them and gave them a blow they won’t forget,” said Ziv Barda, 28, who works for a car rental company in Ashkelon. “Finally someone decided enough is enough.”

With rockets exploding across Israel’s south and at least an eighth of the country’s population now within rocket range, Israelis appear to be coming together behind the country’s leadership and the military as jets, helicopters and navy vessels continued to pound Gaza for a sixth straight day.

A poll Thursday showed that 52 percent of Israelis want to continue the aerial campaign, while only 20 percent would like to see a cease-fire. Just 19 percent want to see a threatened ground offensive take place, presumably because that would mean casualties in the army’s ranks.

Four Israelis have been killed by rocket fire since the offensive began Saturday. Gaza officials now say more than 400 people have been killed in the Palestinian territory.

In Sderot, a working-class border town that has been bombarded by thousands of Hamas rockets in recent years, residents said they haven’t been this satisfied in a long time. On Wednesday, they cheered to each sound of distant explosions from Israeli airstrikes.

“You see people walking with their heads up in the air again. Finally there is some hope,” said Itzik Biton, 38, who sells falafel at a fast-food stand.

Tammy Hovel, 31, said her children were cramped in shelters and that her bakery was suffering, but she was nonetheless encouraged.

“We’re going to get hit either way, so at least they are doing something,” Hovel said. “And people elsewhere are starting to understand what we’ve had to deal with.”

With national elections approaching on Feb. 10, the Israeli assault on Gaza has boosted support for Barak’s Labor Party, the standard-bearer for Israel’s peace camp, by making it look tough.

The poll showed overall support for moderate and centrist parties going up, while support for hard-line and religious parties went down _ leaving each side with half the seats in parliament if elections were held today.

The survey, carried out by the Dialog company, showed jumps in the approval ratings for Israel’s top three leaders _ Barak, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

“We feel that the government is finally supporting us,” Biton said. “True, rockets are falling and we are losing money. But we’ll suffer for a month and then we’ll be done with this.”

The poll appeared Thursday in the daily Haaretz newspaper. It surveyed 472 people and had a margin of error of 4.6 percentage points.

But the opposition Likud Party, headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, is still the front-runner, and the government’s popularity might be brief.

A good mood is to be expected at the beginning of a war, said Tel Aviv University pollster Camil Fuchs, who oversaw the survey.

When Israel went to war against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon in the summer of 2006, the government’s initially sky-high approval ratings evaporated when deaths mounted. Some 159 Israelis were killed during the monthlong war.

“It’s very fluid _ it could change in a day if a missile hits somewhere and we have more casualties,” Fuchs said.

Along the Gaza border, Israeli bystanders and police officers stopped their vehicles on the side of the road Thursday to watch Israeli helicopters, drones and fighter jets strike targets in Gaza, cheering with each deafening explosion.

But the cheers would die out fast if ground forces go in, get bogged down in Gaza’s densely populated urban areas and start taking casualties, or if rocket fire continues to paralyze life in the south. Israel’s army declared Thursday that its ground troops are ready to invade.

“We are spoiled and impatient _ we like our wars short,” said Israeli historian Tom Segev. If fighting goes on too long, or if it ends with an inconclusive cease-fire, Segev said, Israelis will turn on the government as they did after the Lebanon war.

“The mood will change fast,” he said.