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Israel's unusual international support in Gaza conflict

Christa Case Bryant, Bastien InzaurraldeThe Christian Science Monitor

As Israel begins the second week of its offensive against the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, it is enjoying unusual international support. Usually the target of criticism in Europe when it goes to war with Palestinians, Israel has seen the European Union stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the US this time in support of Israel, and in placing blame on Hamas.

Today’s bombing of a bus in Tel Aviv is generating more support for Israel. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius condemned "in the strongest terms" the Tel Aviv attack for "targeting civilians at a time when everything must be done to reach a cease-fire" and vowed to meet with his Israeli, Egyptian, and American counterparts again today.

The bombing has made a cease-fire less likely. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and various foreign ministers have descended on the region to hasten an agreement, though prospects are dimming. Last night, Hamas and Egyptian officials were claiming that a truce was agreed, and later blamed Israel for scuttling the deal at the last minute.

But even as international pressure has been mounting for a cease-fire, the US, the UN, and the European Union have been careful to emphasize that Israeli citizens cannot be expected to live under a barrage of rocket fire.

“One thing is clear: The cause of this escalation is the rocket fire from Gaza to Israel’s south. That cannot be justified,” German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said yesterday in Jerusalem. “The Israeli government does not have to live with this; it has the right to protect its civilian population.”

Israeli officials credit Israel’s application of lessons learned from its 2008-09 Cast Lead operation, which left more than 1,300 Palestinians dead and reduced much of Gaza’s infrastructure to rubble, for their current international support.

“I think this is a little bit longer than the average period that was given to us,” says Nachmann Shai, a member of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense committee with a long career in representing Israel’s interests to the world. “The United Nations gave us generously some time to take care of the terror,” he says, adding that there were clear expectations that Israel was to do its best to avoid civilian casualties and refrain from collective punishment measures.

Fewer casualties

In comparison with Cast Lead, Israel has relied more heavily this time on precision weapons to limit casualties, refrained from a ground invasion, and coordinated a massive public relations campaign, enlisting some 25,000 volunteers to explain to the world why Israel took action against Hamas-run Gaza. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF), which is launching a new social media branch in February, has been very engaged on Twitter, sparring with Hamas’s military wing and posting photos of injured Israeli children to counter images of Palestinian suffering.

As the first week of the operation came to a close yesterday, the Palestinian death toll was far lower than it was a week into the Cast Lead operation, despite a greater number of air strikes this time around – 1,500 compared with about 800. The Palestinian death toll as of last night stood at 113, roughly a third of the total death toll after the first week of Cast Lead, when some 400 Palestinians had been killed. The percentage of Palestinian casualties deemed to be civilians varies widely, from 30 to 50 percent, depending on the source.

Five Israelis have been killed since the start of Pillar of Defense, compared with four after the first week of Cast Lead.

American and European leaders' support for Israel has raised the ire of the Muslim world, which is strongly critical of Israel’s targeted assassinations of militants in the Gaza Strip, the collateral damage caused by such strikes, and its restrictions on goods and people flowing in and out of Gaza.

The Iranian government channel Press TV faulted German Foreign Minister Westerwelle for “turning a blind eye to the Israeli aggression.”

In the West Bank city of Ramallah yesterday, Hanan Ashrawi of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Executive Committee criticized a statement put out by the European Union for its “glaring absence of any reference to the illegal siege of Gaza and its people,” saying it showed “a lack of will that is necessary to bring an end to such injustice.”

And from Saudi Arabia, radio journalist Samar Fatany – a prominent voice for reform in the kingdom – criticized the “over-exaggerated fear of Palestinian rockets,” saying that such attacks have done “little damage” compared to Israeli policies such as “brutal Israeli airstrikes, the Gaza blockade, the Israeli settlement expansion, the imposed sanctions and boycotts, the erection of the racist separation wall, the banning of construction of Palestinian homes, the closing of Palestinian institutions, the imposition of heavy taxes and the loss of Palestinian livelihood by uprooting olive trees and confiscating land.”

One consideration that may have been holding Israel back from a ground invasion was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s desire for as much European support as possible when Palestinians go to the UN next week to press for upgrading their status to “observer state.”

If the Palestinian bid were to get strong support from EU countries, Mr. Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman would see that as a “major defeat,” said veteran Israeli diplomat Alon Liel, speaking by phone prior to the Tel Aviv bombing. With nearly 40 European countries still making up their minds about how to vote, “there is a limit to how much Israel can annoy the Europeans now,” he said.

French Foreign Minister Fabius said at a press conference last night that France doesn’t have a position yet on whether it will back or oppose the PLO's bid to obtain observer status at the United Nations on Nov. 29. He said France will make a decision once it knows what the positions of other European countries are, and after reading the resolution containing the bid. However, he said the timing of the Palestinian bid is awkward given the current conflict.

“It doesn’t seem to us that this moment is the best,” he said.

That appears even more true in the wake of today’s bombing in Tel Aviv, the first terrorist attack in the city since 2006.