Fighting intensified as Israel continued its Gaza offensive for a fourth day Friday, with Palestinian militants launching more rocket attacks on the Jewish state and incoming fire coming from Lebanon for the first time.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he will not bow to international pressure to stop the military campaign and would not rule out a ground invasion to stop the rocket fire from Palestinian militants.
VOA's Natasha Mozgovaya spoke with Israeli's ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, late Thursday.
Natasha Mozgovaya: “What's your reading of the US administration's reaction to this crisis? On the one hand, they have expressed firm support for Israel’s right to defend itself, on the other, they say 'let’s de-escalate.' What do they mean?”
Amb. Ron Dermer: “I think there's strong support from President Obama and from Congress - bipartisan support, really - across the aisle. Today I held a briefing with our military attache for senators and you could really see expressions of sympathy and support, because everybody understands that Hamas is terrorist organization, it’s firing missiles and using civilians as human shields. I understand that no country in the world would tolerate attacks like this - when two-thirds of the country’s population has to run to bomb shelters. I ask them: imagine what would happen if over 200 million Americans had to run to bomb shelters because of attacks by a terrorist organization that operated in territory contiguous to US territory. So, I think most people believe Israel is acting with considerable restraint. There are always concerns, everybody would like to see the end of the rocket attacks, the end of operations and all that, but there is deep understanding for Israel’s right to defend itself, and I hope this will continue.”
NM: “But, on the other hand, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said today, that “nobody wants to see a ground invasion.” Does it mean that Israel doesn’t have a green light [for a ground operation in Gaza]?”
Amb. Dermer: “I think, first of all, there are no green lights and red lights, we are a sovereign country. We have the right to defend ourselves and the most important [principle] is the affirmation of Israel’s right to defend itself against those rocket attacks. The issue of a ground operation or not a ground operation is a military tactic, it’s not an objective [which is really] to end the rocket attacks - not just for a day or a week or two - and to give quiet to the residents of Israel. And I think there is a broad support for that. So you can look at the statements trying to look for a word that suggests sort of a lack of support, but what I’ve seen was strong support - and I remember a year-and-a-half ago, the last time we had a confrontation with Hamas for eight days - [there] was very, very strong support throughout from the president, and I expect that support will continue as well. You’ve also seen statements that were made by [German] Chancellor [Angela] Merkel, by President [François] Hollande of France, by David Cameron, the British prime minister, by Stephen Harper, the Canadian prime minister. So we’ve seen very strong support, that’s appreciative, that we need to do what’s necessary to protect our population. And I don't think there is a military in the world that goes to such great lengths to keep the civilians of the other side’s population out of harm’s way. So there is support of our action.”
NM: In the readout of today’s phone call between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu there was some suggestion of American mediation, help to end hostilities. What did the U.S. actually offer?
Amb. Dermer: “I haven’t had a chance to speak about it specifically with the prime minister - the call happened only a few hours ago. I don’t know specifically what they were talking about, but obviously any suggestion that would help achieve the goals Israel has set out for its operation - in this case, to end the rocket attacks and restore quiet - would be something Jerusalem would be open to. But I don’t know specifics... It hasn’t been that relevant because our country is under attack and we have three quarters of the country that at one time or another has to rush to bomb shelters - so we are under rocket attack and the prime minister has to do what he has to do to protect the civilian population of Israel.”
NM: Did you ask for any support from America? Additional financing for Iron Dome, or anything technical?
Amb. Dermer: “Well, we have asked of an increase in funding for Iron Dome - I think it’s important for your listeners to understand that it’s a joint project between the US and Israel. It’s Israeli technology that was funded by the U.S. It knocks down a-lot of these rockets that have been fired at Israel, it’s an anti-missile system where, basically, a missile is shot at an incoming rocket to knock it in the air, [and it] has very effective success ratio. It’s protecting our civilians from what could be huge casualties on the Israeli side. And it’s also in a way protecting Palestinian civilians, because we have this protection of the Iron Dome, it gives the leadership in Israel the time and space it needs to effectively prosecute this surgical war against Hamas, and can do it in a way that keeps Palestinian civilians to the greatest extent possible out of harm’s way. Without Iron Dome, Israel would have to take much faster, much more forceful action to end these attacks, because Israel would be paying huge price for it. So we’ve asked for additional assistance for Iron Dome, but it actually happened before this operation. I know there is strong support for increasing support for Iron Dome.”
NM: Still, the Palestinian leader called [the Israeli operation] “genocide.” What is your reaction to that?
Amb. Dermer: "I think it’s completely shameful to use a word like genocide, particularly when you are dealing with Jewish state. “Genocide” can be used to speak about Rwanda and to speak about Sudan, those were horrific genocides, in case of Rwanda it was about 900,000 people in 3 months that were killed, it’s [on an] unimaginable scale. I don’t know these precise numbers for Sudan but it was also clearly genocide. When you throw at Jewish people that the actions they are taking to defend themselves against rocket attacks when the vast majority of people that have been killed are Hamas terrorists - and you are talking about a score of casualties that are fewer than a hundred while comparing it to genocide - it’s really an outrage. In May 1944, 10,000 people were killed every day, Jews. Every day were murdered in Auschwitz. That’s genocide. And I think it’s wrong and President Abbas should apologize to the nation for calling it genocide, and I think the international community should hold into account and also demand that he ends the pact that he has made with Hamas - terrorist organization that actually calls for genocide. Genocide is part of their Charter, they actually call for murder of Jews worldwide. So he is actually in alliance with organization that is genocidal organization, and I think his statement was beyond the pale.”
NM: I also have a question about a possible non-conventional threat - there were reports about rockets fired possibly directed at the nuclear reactor in Dimona - one was reportedly intercepted, others fell in the open space. Was it just a misguided missile - or [a] possible attempt [at] nuclear terrorism? How well is the reactor protected?
Amb. Dermer: “I don’t know about this specific case - we have Iron Dome in various locations around Israel, and obviously the military is pointing [the interceptors] in a way that protects Israel’s strategic installations, and we’ll take an action that needs to be taken in order to defend ourselves.”
NM: Do you have an idea why Hamas attacked now - what happened? Was it the murder of the Palestinian teenager, retaliation for the killing of three Israeli teenagers? Some even connect this crisis with the Iranian nuclear negotiations.
Amb. Dermer: “Look, Hamas fired 8,000 rockets at Israel since we withdrew from Gaza - fired from Gaza at Israel, and we withdrew from every square inch, uprooted two dozen settlements, took 10,000 people out, hoping that it will advance peace between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza. What many hoped would will be the Singapore of the Middle East turned into a terror base for attacks against Israel. So this has been ongoing for a long time, and to think that a particular action triggered Hamas strike, I think is a mistake. It might have led to an escalation at a specific moment - but even 3 months before the three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and killed - from Gaza, we had about 175 rockets fired at Israel. So they don’t need many excuses to fire rockets at Israel - their mission is in their Charter, to target the Jews, as many as possible, and destroy Israel. That’s why they continued to fire rockets, and [are] not willing to accept Israel's right to exist or abandon terrorism. We hope that will change - and one of the best ways to make a change is for the world to back Israel in taking action against terrorism and also tell [Palestinian] President Abbas he should break his pact with Hamas and go back to peace negotiations with Israel, so we can resolve our conflict with the Palestinians once and for all.”
NM: So what is Israel's goal now - [a] ceasefire, or regime change in Gaza?
Amb. Dermer: “The goal was set by the prime minister, and it’s to restore quiet to the residents of Israel and end these rocket attacks. Our operational goals are clear and hopefully we can achieve [them] in as short a time as possible, with as few casualties as possible. The prime minister is determined to do what’s necessary to defend Israel’s population.”