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Hamas's use of human shields is to blame for Gaza toll, Israeli envoy says

'When you turn a school into a weapons depot, that’s a war crime,' Ambassador Ron Dermer said at a Monitor breakfast with reporters, voicing dismay at criticism of Israel for the rising civilian death toll in Gaza.

Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor
Ron Dermer, Israel's Ambassador to the United States speaks at a Monitor Breakfast for reporters on Tuesday, July 22, 2014, in Washington, DC.

Israel’s ambassador to the United States expressed dismay Tuesday at the world’s mounting criticism of Israel for the rising civilian death toll in Gaza, saying that instead the international community should pin responsibility for those deaths on Hamas for its “systematic use” of human shields.

Hamas’s operations to counter Israel’s efforts to take out the militant organization’s missile infrastructure “are designed to put their people in harm’s way” for maximum global public opinion impact, Ron Dermer asserted at a Monitor breakfast with Washington journalists. Such tactics are illegal and a human rights violation, he said

“When you turn a school into a weapons depot, that’s a war crime,” Mr. Dermer said.

Israel’s chief diplomat in Washington also blasted a Human Rights Watch report issued Monday that concluded after investigating eight Israeli airstrikes in the Gaza operation – including the killing of four boys on the Gaza City waterfront last week – that the attacks were “violations of the laws of war” because of the absence of military targets.

Describing the Human Rights Watch’s investigation as “some sort of kangaroo court that afterwards will try to get the facts,” Dermer said that instead of judging Israel “without evidence” human rights groups should focus their condemnation on Hamas for its “systematic use of human shields.”

The Israeli diplomat said the international community should focus on what he said is really the greatest affront to humane standards in the conflict: “Will the world actually take a stand against the use of human shields?” he said.

Dermer spoke a day after United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described as “atrocious” Israel’s bombardment of Gaza’s Shejaiya quarter on Sunday, the worst single day of violence for both sides in two weeks of fighting. More than 100 Palestinians were killed Sunday, while Israel lost 14, mostly soldiers. The death toll in the conflict stood early Tuesday at 608 on the Palestinian side, and 28 on the Israeli side.

The violence was prompting urgent calls for a cease-fire, including from Secretary of State John Kerry, who was in Cairo Tuesday for talks with Egyptian officials on efforts to secure an end to the violence based on an Egyptian cease-fire plan. But on Tuesday neither side was showing much interest in ending the fighting.

Dermer said “Israel should [not] be judged by a standard of perfection,” but he insisted that Israel’s policy – contrary to Hamas’s aim with its use of rockets – is “we don’t target civilians.” Asserting that “99 percent of the time we get it right,” he said that instead of criticizing Israel the world should recognize the lengths it goes to avoid endangering civilians.

“The international community should admire Israel for the restraint we have shown,” he said. He also said Americans tempted to criticize Israel should consider what it’s like to live under the threat of rocket fire and then apply what he calls the “WWAD standard: What would America do” in the same situation?

Dermer also made a case for arguing that the Iron Dome missile shield system, funded in major part by the United States, is saving lives not just on the Israeli side of the conflict but on the Palestinian side as well.

Without Iron Dome, more Israeli civilians would be killed in Hamas rocket attacks, he postulated, “and therefore the pressure to get to the places with rocket launchers would be much greater.” He said Iron Dome gives the Israeli military “the time and space to give more careful and calibrated decisions” on airstrikes.

Dermer refused to discuss the stockpile of Iron Dome anti-missile missiles Israel still has after more than two weeks of intercepting rocket fire. “That’s very sensitive information that we don’t talk about publicly,” he said. He added, however, that while “Israel is quite capable of defending its people,” it is also accurate to say that Israel is “constantly in communication with the [Obama] administration on Iron Dome” and its funding and operation.

Even as fighting rages on in Gaza, Israel remains open to a cease-fire with Hamas and its goal remains the same: “Militarily and diplomatically, if we can achieve peace and quiet for Israel, that remains the objective,” he said.

The Israeli diplomat also hinted at another reality of Israel’s strategy that might perplex some observers: Israel wants to stop Hamas’s rockets and destroy its tunnels, but it does not want to destroy the organization.

Why? As many Middle East analysts note, Israel prefers a weakened Hamas to some of the alternatives waiting in the wings to take its place. “Israel wants to push Hamas hard, but not so hard that it comes crashing down,” says Robert Danin, an expert in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

Referring specifically to Palestinian Islamic Jihad as one example, Mr. Danin says Israel wants to avoid weakening Hamas to a degree that “leaves either more radical groups in control, or no one in control” in Gaza.

Dermer said that Hamas has lost most of its “friends” among Arab countries and has seen its relations with Iran deteriorate, but he suggested that this weakening of Hamas’s standing in the region also potentially presents a downside for Israel if the alternative to Hamas is something worse.

Calling Palestinian Islamic Jihad “a wholly-owned subsidiary of Iran,” Dermer cited a new challenge facing Israel in a roiled and evolving Middle East: “We need to ensure,” he said, “that the worst actors don’t get the worst weapons.”

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