NEW YORK -- Ambassador Ron Dermer, Israel’s chief diplomatic representative in the U.S., asked some 700 American Jews on a conference call this week for their help shifting the messaging on Israel. Israel is being routinely portrayed in both conventional and social media as an angry, well-armed giant leaving many innocent victims in its wake during the current crisis with Hamas, Dermer said.
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The call was organized by the Jewish Federations of North America, which this week sent federation leaders to visit targeted towns in Israel, and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. Dermer told his audience that Hamas may be winning the war over public opinion, as Israel is vilified for the civilian casualties its bombs cause in Gaza, while Hamas is not being blamed for instructing Palestinians to stay in their homes – even when they have been warned by the IDF that the locations will be bombed imminently.
“Hamas is putting its missile batteries and command centers next to schools and hospitals. That is a major war crime. While we are doing everything possible to keep civilians out of harms way, Hamas is trying to put their people into harms way. Gaza’s interior minister said people should ignore warnings and go back into their homes. We are taking action to minimize to the greatest extent possible number of civilian casualties, they are doing everything to maximize it.”
Dermer said that three quarters of Israel’s population has had to rush to bomb shelters in the past week and asked the Jewish Federation leaders on the phone call to advocate on Israel’s behalf with elected officials and local media.
After acknowledging President Barack Obama and the leaders of Canada, Great Britain, Germany and France for their public support of Israel’s right to defend itself during the current conflict, Dermer said that there hasn’t been enough focus on the fact that Hamas’ approach is to use Gaza’s citizens as human shields.
“We haven’t seen the world come out strongly against the use of human shields,” Dermer said. “Hamas thinks they will succeed because we can’t be perfect. The IDF has hit 1,200 targets in a very densely populated area. Even if just one percent of those actions goes wrong it can claim civilian lives. It is important for the international community to send the message that Hamas is responsible for sending these non-combatants into harms way. If they think it works and it leads to greater pressure on Israel, you will see it more and more. Putting blame on Israel is actually giving Hamas a great victory,” he added.
Dermer provided Federation officials and lay leaders talking points to use at home, most of which were similar to the views he shared on a July 9th interview on CNN.
“Anyone making Israel’s case should make the case of how other countries facing similar threats would act,” he advised the federation leaders. “That makes it clear that Israel’s actions are astounding. Everyone here knows that if America were facing this threat, it would take at least as strong action. Everybody knows that’s true and that’s how Israel has to be defended. We are not perfect and we should try to do our best, but we are imperfect. That should not be a reason for maligning Israel. We should be very proud that Israel is upholding the values we’re upholding in the face of a direct threat.”
“Never lose sight of the difference between Israel and Hamas. Hamas is deliberately targeting civilians. That is a war crime. Israel is actually trying to target the terrorists. Every time an innocent is killed that’s a failure…It’s important to remember that we are not perfect. We can’t get it 100 percent of the time right. We’re pretty close. When you look at how densely populated this area is, but we are not perfect…We go to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties.”
“It’s hard for me to accept responsibility for Israel’s actions when I see how hard we try to put their civilians out of harms way, and risk the security of ourselves…What would America do, or Canada do, if three-quarters of tis population was in bomb shelters?”
Israel has not suffered more casualties because of “a very disciplined Israeli population paying attention to the home front command,” and the Iron Dome missile interception system.
Iron Dome, which was partly funded by the U.S., has intercepted about 700 of the 1,000 rockets fired at Israel, Dermer said. "It won’t engage every one of them…only when it is heading toward a built-up area does it fire a missile.”
The system has completely changed the way Israel responds, he said. “Iron Dome has allowed Israel to control events rather than be controlled by them. It protects Palestinian civilians as well. It gives the prime minister and cabinet to approach the war in a calibrated way. Without Iron Dome we would have to act much faster and take stronger military action, which could lead to casualties on our side and the other side. Iron Dome has uniquely changed the battlefield for Israel,” he said.
He also sounded a slightly defiant note. “I’m not going to apologize for the fact that we’re able to defend ourselves,” Dermer said during the hour-long phone call. “More [people] have not been killed because we have a very strong IDF and have invested a lot in protecting our civilians. Those of you who doubt Israel is holding these standards, remember that only one other country has faced this amount of rocket fire, that is Great Britain during World War II. It is always important to judge Israel the way other countries would respond.”
CORRECTION: This headline was changed on July 17; the original headline was 'Israel ambassador to U.S. Jews: Hamas winning war of public opinion.'