Israel faces public-relations disaster over air raids

Israel is worried about getting bogged down in a foreign public-relations disaster following a series of botched air raids over the Gaza Strip that killed a number of civilians and children.

Despite pledges to continue air raids—or targeted killings of Palestinian militants—as the best means to stop rocket attacks on Israel from the Gaza Strip, diplomatic officials abroad are coming in for a rough ride.

“Reports from our overseas representation offices attest to a disastrous effect of the deaths of Palestinian civilians in army operations on Israel’s image,” said one official at the Foreign Ministry.

“No explanation in the world about having to stop rockets being fired at our civilians at any price overcomes the television footage of a child dead or crying because his relatives have been killed,” the source said.

Fourteen Palestinian civilians, five of them children, have been killed in air strikes over the impoverished Gaza Strip, a militant stronghold, in the last 10 days to counter the firing of nearly 150 rockets at Israel.

Britain, Egypt, France, Jordan, Russia, Syria, the United Nations and the United States have been among those expressing shock and condemnation over the Israeli strikes that resulted in civilian casualties.

Yet Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has declared no let-up, announcing that the government will continue raids against the “terrorists”.

“I regret the lives of innocent [Palestinians], but those of the Israeli inhabitants of Sderot count no less in my eyes,” the prime minister said.

Five people have died in rocket attacks against the town of Sderot since the Palestinian uprising broke out in 2000, a fraction of the more than 5 100 people killed, most of them Palestinian, in the last six years of violence.

“Whoever fires a rocket on Sderot will pay with his life,” hammered home Justice Minister Haim Ramon, a member of Olmert’s centrist Kadima party.

He told public radio that Israel had no choice but to continue the air raids. For now, the establishment has balked at the prospect of a ground operation in Gaza, from which troops and settlers withdrew last September after a 38-year occupation.

Defence Minister Amir Peretz, himself a Sderot resident and considered a dove in the conflict with the Palestinians, on Thursday ordered the chief of staff to take greater care to prevent “collateral damage”, the press reported.

“The world has not been able to accept the deaths of Palestinian civilians in recent weeks, while the rocket attacks cause only damage [and] the fact that our reaction is disproportionate,” said former Foreign Ministry chief Alon Liel.

“Even if the rockets can kill and are a serious inconvenience for the residents of Sderot, they do not remotely add up to a comprehensive threat for Israel.”

Currently a professor of international relations at Israel’s prestigious Hebrew University, Liel said Peretz, who took office with the rest of Olmert’s government in May, was partly to blame for Israel’s deteriorating image.

Regardless of his reputation as a dove, he had nevertheless given the green light to the targeted killings, repeatedly condemned by the international community in general and the UN in particular.

The Maariv newspaper reported that ambassadors in Europe in particular have faced great difficulty with Israeli public relations over the civilian deaths.

Israel’s ties with the European Union, traditionally the Palestinians’ biggest donor and often more critical of Israel than Washington, had recently improved over a mutual boycott of the Hamas-led Palestinian government.—AFP

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