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A few days ago, I met a European ambassador stationed in Israel. The man, a great friend of Israel, launched an emotional monologue and spoke from the bottom of his heart.

"Make no mistake," he said. "I understand why you embarked on the operation in Gaza, and many of my colleagues also understand and even support it, but a few days ago you started to cross red lines."

The ambassador continued, reiterating his support and his love for Israel. "We too would like to damage Hamas, we too would not sit by quietly if they were firing rockets at us," he said. "It was clear to us that innocent people would be hurt in any operation in Gaza, and we were prepared to accept that up to certain limit, but in the past few days it seems that your action is getting out of control, and the harm to civilians is tremendous."

The straw that broke the camel's back for that ambassador was the Red Cross report from Gaza that small children had been found wounded, near the corpses of their mothers, under the ruins of their homes, and other reports of civilians on the verge of dying in places ambulances could not reach because of the fighting.

"The international organizations in Gaza are talking about 200 dead children," he said. "I don't know how to explain these things to myself, never mind to my government," added the ambassador. "Your action is brutal and you don't realize how much damage this is causing you in the world. This is not only short term. It's damage for years. Is this the Israel you want to be?"

A similar message also came across in a conversation that President Shimon Peres had with the delegation of European foreign ministers who came to Jerusalem a week ago. Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the European Union Commissioner responsible for External Relations and European Neighborhood Policy, said to Peres: "You have the right to self-defense, but what is happening in Gaza is beyond all proportion. I am telling you, Mr. President, Israel's image in the world has been destroyed."

Even though the issue is not being accorded much attention in Israel, in Europe, the Arab countries and even the United States, the main story regarding Gaza is the many civilians hurt in the fighting. According to United Nations reports, approximately 300 civilians were among the more than 900 Palestinians killed. People are seeing images from Gaza of a sort that were not broadcast in previous wars, such as Kosovo or Afghanistan. Incidentally, these pictures are hardly being broadcast at all in the Israeli media.

With the start of the fighting, the Foreign Ministry instructed its foreign delegations to prepare daily reports on the press that Operation Cast Lead was receiving. In the first days the reports were sparse, in part because of Christmas and New Year's, but then they began to fill up with scores of negative items describing Israel's attacks on innocent people in Gaza. "You see the reports in the morning and you feel ill," said a senior official.

In some of the countries, especially those more critical of Israel, more extreme voices are being heard. Thus, for example, a group of non-governmental organizations called on the Spanish prime minister's party to recall the Spanish ambassador from Tel Aviv to protest Israel's "war crimes."

'Our problem'

A senior Israeli diplomat who serves in a delegation on the East Coast of the United States described how he is repeatedly asked in media interviews about Israel's war crimes in Gaza, or about the disproportionate response to the Qassams. "The harm to civilians in Gaza is causing huge damage that will only increase each day the operation continues," the diplomat said.

This is not a problem of public relations. It is difficult to impossible to explain the harm to civilians. The Foreign Ministry's efforts to emphasize that Hamas is using civilians as a human shield have only slightly contained the short-term damage.

Nevertheless, the problem is the medium- and long-term damage, which may be manifested abroad as increased anti-Semitism and the delegitimization of Israel's existence as a Jewish state. Indeed, yesterday, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni sent a statement to world leaders, calling on them to act to stop the wave of anti-Semitism aroused by the action in Gaza.

The Foreign Ministry considers the "Durban 2" World Conference against Racism, scheduled for April in Geneva, as the point when they can determine the extent to which Israel's standing as a democratic country that respects human rights has been damaged.

Israel has rallied many countries against the conference on the grounds that it will become a platform for anti-Semitism, and has also announced, along with the United States and Canada, that it will boycott the conference. The United Nations Human Rights Council, which is organizing the conference, has gone on the defensive and has tried to assure Israel that it will do its utmost to ensure the conference will be balanced. After the operation in Gaza, the Foreign Ministry believes Israel will be on the defensive internationally, and "Durban 2" is an almost certain defeat.