International support for Operation Protective Edge remains firm, several Israeli officials and experts said this week, rejecting assertions that public opinion is turning against Israel’s military campaign in Gaza. Others warn, however, that as the civilian death toll continues to climb, even world leaders sympathetic to Israel’s struggle will eventually turn their backs on Jerusalem.
“There is strong international support for Israel, which was reiterated recently by the leaders of the United States and the United Kingdom,” a senior Israeli official said, referring to statements in defense of Israel’s legitimate right to self-defense by Barack Obama and David Cameron, respectively.
Yet many observers in Israel and abroad, while acknowledging that Israel’s war was initially supported by most of the world, see the tide turning now, especially after a fierce fight between the Israeli army and Hamas terrorists early Sunday morning in the Gaza City neighborhood of Shejaiya. According to Palestinians sources, at least 60 people were killed during the fighting, including 17 children, 14 women and 4 elderly. (Thirteen Israeli soldiers were killed Sunday in various battles in Shejaiya.)
“I condemn this atrocious action. Israel must exercise maximum restraint and do far more to protect civilians,” United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, referring to the IDF’s fight in Shejaiya.
“The world community is almost unanimous in its disapproval of Netanyahu’s massive use of force in Gaza,” asserted Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former US national security adviser and currently a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
A quick survey of statements and press releases by world leaders does suggest that the international community — with certain notable exceptions, such as Canada — are growing impatient with Israel’s operation and its civilian casualties.
“In Israel and in Gaza, the situation is very hard,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Tuesday. “Nothing justifies continued attacks and massacres which do nothing but only claim more victims and stoke tensions, hatred,” he said, adding that Paris will “act forcefully” to demand an immediate ceasefire.
In South Africa, the majority leader in parliament called on the government to expel the Israeli ambassador in Pretoria and to withdraw its envoy to Tel Aviv. “The African National Congress in parliament is extremely outraged by the wanton and unjustifiable bombardment and killings of innocent civilians, including children, in Palestinian territory of Gaza by Israel military forces,” ANC Chief Whip Phumelele Stone Sizani declared. (Despite very harsh criticism of Israel’s campaign in Gaza, the government in Pretoria has made it clear that it has no intention to expel or withdraw any ambassadors, the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem said.)
Even British Prime Minister David Cameron, who said on Monday that Israel has the “right to defend itself,” found some strong words about the high number of civilian deaths.
While the current crisis in Gaza was “triggered by Hamas raining hundreds of rockets on Israeli cities, indiscriminately targeting civilians in contravention of all humanitarian law and norms,” Cameron said, he shared the world’s “grave concern” over the “heavy toll” of civilian casualties. “The figures are very disturbing,” he said, urging Israel to “do everything to avoid civilian casualties, to exercise restraint and to help find ways to bring this situation to an end.”
The leader of the British Labour Party, Ed Miliband was even clearer: “We oppose the Israeli incursion into Gaza,” he said in an interview.
Over the weekend, Miliband — who polls suggest has a good chance of becoming prime minister after next year’s general elections — criticized Israel for causing Palestinian casualties. “As a party we oppose the further escalation of violence we have seen with Israel’s invasion of Gaza,” he said. “I defend Israel’s right to defend itself against rocket attacks. But I cannot explain, justify or defend the horrifying deaths of hundreds of Palestinians, including children and innocent civilians.”
US President Barack Obama on Monday likewise reiterated Israel’s right to defend itself, but expressed “serious concerns about the rising number of Palestinian civilian deaths and the loss of Israeli lives.”
Writing in the Forward, J.J. Goldberg says the international community suddenly switched from support to condemnation, a development that can be traced back to the moment reports and images from the bloody battle of Shejaiya surfaced. “Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel. Sometime around noon the wind shifted and the tide began to roll out, and Israel started to lose international sympathy for its Operation Protective Edge in Gaza.”
Any empathy Israel had among the community of nations because of the kidnapping and murder of three teenagers — Eyal Yifrach, Gil-ad Shaar and Naftali Fraenkel — and the constant rocket fire it was enduring from Gaza is quickly dissipating, Goldberg writes. “Until the weekend, protests of Israel’s actions were limited to street demonstrations by leftists and Muslims in various cities around the world, with almost no governmental backing. Now governments are starting to switch sides.”
Goldberg is referring to large anti-Israel demonstrations that took place in several European cities. In London, Paris, Berlin and other major cities across the continent tens of thousands of protesters took to the street and denounced Operation Protective Edge.
And yet, some Israeli observers remain confident that Jerusalem’s responsible handling of the war guarantees international sympathy that will surely overcome the outrage over the high civilian death toll.
“I’m not particularly worried about international support for the operation, for two reasons. First of all, nobody likes Hamas — including in the Arab world and the Palestinian Authority,” said Avi Primor, a former Israeli ambassador in Europe and currently the president of the Israel Council on Foreign Relations. “Secondly, we have accepted the ceasefire; we hesitated long before we attacked from the air; then we hesitated again before we attacked from ground. We’re also obviously looking for a ceasefire now, while Hamas refuses.” The world knows that Hamas, not Israel, is the problem, he said.
True, Primor allowed, there are Muslim minorities worldwide “who are emotionally involved” in Gaza, but even though the demonstrations in Europe look massive they do not represent the continent’s entire population, and “certainly the government.” Most of the demonstrators are not citizens of the countries they reside in, he said, adding that Paris threatened to expel all non-citizen residents of France who participate in illegal anti-Israel demonstrations.
“I’m not worried,” he said, explaining that most European governments see militant pro-Palestinian protesters as a threat to their own countries’ internal security and will confront them harshly. Even peaceful demonstrations against the Gaza war will not turn governments against Israel, he assessed.
Indeed, certainly the Western world understands that Israel is under attack by an Islamic terrorist organizations and needs to defend itself, and that local protest will not convince them otherwise, a senior Israeli official said. “They know that the people who take to the street are the usual suspects: Muslims, marginals, and people from the far left,” he said. “The mainstream doesn’t demonstrate against Israel.”
So how come more and more governments denounce the rising death toll and call on Jerusalem to exercise restraint? According to the senior official, even countries that support Israel are — and have always been — reluctant to face the actual results of real military action.
“They would like everything to happen in a sterile world. They say Israel has the right to defend itself, but want nobody to get hurt in the process. You can defend yourself, but don’t make any mess.” Therefore, even world leaders who understand why Israel needs to fight will eventually condemn Operation Protective Edge, especially as the body counts continues to climb, the official said. “We’ve seen this before. After a while, these things go on autopilot.”