Melissa Block talks to Michael Oren, Israel's Ambassador to the U.S., about the Israeli military's operation in the Gaza Strip. They discuss the possibility of a new ground conflict in Gaza, civilian casualties and Egypt's support for the Palestinians. Oren defends the operation, saying Israel has a right to defend itself against rocket fire. And he suggests Egypt can play a "constructive role" in the conflict.
Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
I'm joined now here in the studio by Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador to the U.S. Ambassador Oren, welcome to the program.
MICHAEL OREN: Good to be with you, Melissa.
BLOCK: I want to ask you about that call-up of 30,000 army reservists. That does signal an escalation. What can you tell us about that?
OREN: Well, it signals a preparation for possible land action, which we may need to defend our citizens. About 1,000 rockets have been fired at Israeli citizens over the course of the last month alone. So, Israel will take whatever measures are necessary to defend its citizens. We hope it doesn't come to ground operations, but we have to be prepared for that possibility as well.
BLOCK: You say you hope it doesn't come to a full-scale ground invasion. What would the tipping point be? What would the trigger be for that?
OREN: Well, I don't want to be too great into too hypothetical situations here, but if Hamas continues to fire rockets at half the population if Israel, Israel will have to take these measures to defend itself. Hamas has opportunities to accept a cease fire. We hope that Hamas and other terrorist organizations in Gaza will avail themselves of those opportunities.
BLOCK: Hamas has said that if there is a full-scale ground invasion, that would open, in their words, the gates of hell. And let's think back to the last time that Israel invaded Gaza in January of 2009. Fourteen hundred Palestinians killed. I think 13 Israelis. Is that a price that Israel is, again, willing to pay?
OREN: Well, the last thing we want to do is inflict casualties on any side. Someday, we hope the people of Gaza will realize that this is not the best for their future; that they will have a government that doesn't invest money in 12,000 rockets that they have accumulated in Gaza, and instead they'll invest money in schools and education and infrastructure and hospitals. Until that time, again, Melissa, we have to take whatever measures are necessary to defend our citizens.
BLOCK: What about the civilian toll? I mean, a lot of Americans woke up today and saw this image in their newspaper. I'm looking at the front page of The Washington Post, and it's the image of a Palestinian man holding the shrouded body of his 11-month-old son, who was killed in an airstrike, and weeping.
Do you run the risk of international condemnation for a disproportionate response, when images like this are out there?
OREN: First of all, we regret any loss of civilian life. Any injuries to civilian life - our military takes immense precautions to minimize, if not eliminate inflicting civilian casualties. We had one case where one of our pilots had targeted a long-range Hamas rocket and then called off his airstrike 'cause he saw children in the vicinity. Now, it was one of those long-range rockets just recently struck Tel Aviv. So we pay a price for exercising that type of caution.
But we have to also be aware that we're dealing with an enemy in Gaza that hides behind a civilian population. Hamas has a media strategy - wants those pictures on the front page. Now, we've also had civilian casualties. We want peace restored to the region. And the only way that's going to happen is if Hamas and other terrorist organizations in Gaza accept a cease-fire.
BLOCK: Do you happen to know whether any of the Palestinian civilians who were killed were being used as shields, as you describe, by Hamas?
OREN: Well, they were in the vicinity. I don't have specific details. But civilians who have been hurt were in the vicinity of rockets and other military sites used by Hamas to attack our civilians.
BLOCK: I want to ask you about what signals you might be looking for from Egypt. Of course, Mohamed Morsi - the new president there, allied with the Muslim Brotherhood - he's called your action an unacceptable aggression that can only lead to instability in the region.
What are you looking for from Egypt?
OREN: We'd like Egypt to play a constructive role as it has in the past. Now, Egypt has brokered cease-fires with Hamas. Hamas has broken them, unfortunately. But we think that Egypt can still play that type of constructive role.
BLOCK: Constructive role, but Morsi is under pressure from within, right, from Islamists or the Muslim Brotherhood in his country who would say, open up the border with Gaza, let's take their side. It's a fine balance he's walking.
OREN: I think the president of Egypt understands that stability in the region is not only in Israel's interest, but it's also in Egyptian interest. President Morsi has a lot on his plate in reviving the Egyptian economy, and certainly stability is essential for getting Egypt up on its economic feet again.
BLOCK: At the same time, the Egyptian prime minister has signaled he'll be going to Gaza. That sounds like a gesture of support for Hamas and the people there.
OREN: Well, I'm certainly not going to dictate his itinerary but - or give him advice. But we do hope Egypt will continue to play a constructive role here and it has the opportunity to play such a role.
BLOCK: If you look back at the last invasion of Gaza, from 2008-2009, if the goal was to defeat Hamas and lend stability to Israel, it sounds like we're having that exact same conversation now, four years later
OREN: Well, the goal was to deter Hamas; very similar to the goal in the 2006 war with Hezbollah in Lebanon. Hezbollah has not given us any trouble since 2006. We hope to achieve a similar situation in the south. And we want to create an environment where Israelis can live in as normal circumstances as possible. And they cannot do that if terrorist rockets and mortar shells are landing in their neighborhoods.
And we have to be able to give them that space. And to let the terrorists know that if they do shoot at our civilians, they will pay a prohibitive price.
BLOCK: Ambassador Oren, thanks for coming in.
OREN: My pleasure.
BLOCK: Michael Oren is Israel's ambassador to the United States. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.