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Israeli Ambassador: Soldiers Had ‘No Choice But to Defend Themselves’

May 31, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu canceled a planned trip to the White House as Israel faced international condemnation in the wake of the Gaza flotilla raid. Gwen Ifill talks with Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, for Israel's perspective on the deadly incident at sea.
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GWEN IFILL: After that interview, I talked with Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the United States.

Mr. Ambassador, Israel has come in for some harsh criticism today from people who normally are allies and some people who maybe aren’t. We heard what the prime minister of Turkey said. He called this a war crime. The foreign secretary of the U.K. called for greater restraint on the part of Israel. And the president of France said the use of force was disproportionate to what was going on.

What is your response to all of that?

MICHAEL OREN, Israeli ambassador to the United States: Well, first, let me say, Gwen, that the state of Israel is saddened by all the casualties in this sorry affair, including the Israeli casualties. We have several soldiers who have been wounded, two of them quite seriously.

As for the — the use of force, our soldiers had no choice but to defend themselves. They landed on these ships armed with paint guns, and had no intention of using the sidearms which they carried only for personal defense, only if they were in a situation where their lives were threatened.

And I think you can see on a YouTube clip which is now available, the minute they landed on the ship, they were beaten with iron rods. They were fired at with firearms, with knives. One of the soldiers was toppled from the top of the ship to the deck below and sustained severe head injuries.

GWEN IFILL: They didn’t fire first?

MICHAEL OREN: They didn’t fire first.

GWEN IFILL: So, what exactly do you think that this humanitarian flotilla, as they call themselves, was attempting, just to break the blockade to provoke or to do what has done — happened in the past, which is get supplies to Gaza?

MICHAEL OREN: Well, certainly to provoke, not to provide humanitarian aid.

Over the past several days, Israel has been engaged in intense diplomacy to try to convince the participants in the flotilla to transfer the humanitarian aid in their cargo holds to Israel. And Israel vowed to transfer that aid to Gaza. About 100 trucks of humanitarian aid, food and medicine go into Gaza every day. There’s no shortage of food in Gaza. There’s no shortage of immediate in Gaza. This would have been additional aid.

And we would have been happy to transfer it on. But the purpose of this flotilla wasn’t to bring humanitarian aid to Gaza. It was to make a political statement and to provoke Israel into blockading the flotilla from arriving to Gaza.

The — if they had wanted really to aid the people of Gaza, they would have given us the humanitarian aid.

GWEN IFILL: Was the ship in international waters?

MICHAEL OREN: It was.

GWEN IFILL: Is that — was that breaking the law for the Israeli military to board the ship in international waters, what so many people at the U.N. were saying that today?

MICHAEL OREN: It is not.

Under international law, when there’s a case of a military blockade against a hostile entity — and we are talking about a hostile entity — this is — this is Hamas in Gaza, a country under Article 51 of the United Nations charter, the right to self-defense, has a right to defend itself self.

By the same articles of war, the United States blockaded Germany during World War II in the open seas. Israel was well within its international rights.

GWEN IFILL: Turkey has had a particularly unhappy reaction about this, because so many people on the ship that was boarded were Turkish citizens. Do you think that your relationship with Turkey, one of your few allies in the Muslim world, has been irrevocably damaged?

MICHAEL OREN: Well, I don’t think it’s irrevocably damaged. Certainly, we have a way to go to improve relations between Turkey and Israel. But it’s certainly…

GWEN IFILL: They used the term war crimes.

MICHAEL OREN: It’s a severe term, and it doesn’t make us happy. But this wasn’t, in any remote sense, a war crime.

The war crime was committed by the Gaza regime, by Hamas. Hamas violently overthrew the legitimate Palestinian government of Gaza. It lobbed 7,000 rockets at Israeli civilians over the course of the last several years. And Israel reserves the right, as any country would reserve the right, to defend itself.

And there is no absolute blockade of Gaza. We reserve the right to prevent certain materials from getting in, such as construction materials, which Hamas would use to build bunkers, and not hospitals.

GWEN IFILL: Do we know the identity of the dead or wounded?

MICHAEL OREN: They will not release the identity of the dead.

GWEN IFILL: They…

MICHAEL OREN: They, the participants in the — on the flotilla.

GWEN IFILL: Aren’t they in Israeli hospitals?

MICHAEL OREN: The wounded are in Israeli hospitals, but they won’t necessarily identify themselves.

GWEN IFILL: So, you’ve been in conversation with them and they’re not saying who they are?

MICHAEL OREN: They’re not saying who they are, nor are they saying who the other casualties — the identities of the other casualties.

GWEN IFILL: Over — overall, has this plan to isolate Hamas by putting this blockade in place for the last three years, overall, has it worked, especially given the events overnight, looking at it through that lens?

MICHAEL OREN: I think Hamas is appreciably less popular among the population of Gaza today than it was three years ago.

People of Gaza look across at what’s happening in the West Bank, where there’s an annual growth rate of between 11 and 8 percent, a very, very high growth rate, where there are tens of thousands of new jobs, where there are talks going on between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority, where the Israeli government and the Israeli army has withdrawn from major Palestinian cities and Palestinian security forces have deployed, they look at everything that’s happening on the West Bank. None of that is happening in Gaza.

And they conclude the only reason that’s not happening is because of the regime that is ruling Gaza. And the minute that regime either disappears or ceases its war to destroy the state of Israel — and that is its expressed intention — it’s actually in the covenant of Hamas — then there’s no need for a blockade. There’s no reason for any restrictions whatsoever. There will be an open border.

GWEN IFILL: But does events — do events like what happened last night derail the peace process overall? I didn’t hear anyone at the U.N. Security Council come out and speak on your behalf, other than the Israeli ambassador.

MICHAEL OREN: Well, I think that there will be allies defending our right to defend ourselves. Keep in mind the policy that Israel has on Gaza is not Israel’s alone. It’s also Egypt’s.

The Obama administration also upholds our right to defend ourselves against the Hamas regime and has defended our right to have that blockade in the sea. So, we’re not standing alone. And there is understanding that Israel faces some of the same foes that the United States face, that the West face. And there are some difficult choices here. We don’t always look good on television when we make these choices, but we have to make these choices if we’re to survive as a nation.

GWEN IFILL: There is a lot of talk today of a thorough, complete investigation of this incident. Is this something that Israel is willing to undertake and make public?

MICHAEL OREN: I think, after every major — after every major operation, Israel investigates. We’re constantly in the process of investigating ourselves. And the results of that investigation would be made public, yes.

GWEN IFILL: Including whatever full videos that we see of the event? There are many different versions of that.

MICHAEL OREN: Well, many of them are available online now. They’re online at our Web site, at the IDF Web site.

And I think you will see — in this Web site, you will see how these soldiers come down, they do not shoot, and they are immediately set upon with iron bars. And this one soldier who was thrown over the side, you see that very, very clearly in the video.

GWEN IFILL: OK.

Well, but we will be talking about this some more, I’m sure.

Ambassador Michael Oren, thank you very much.

MICHAEL OREN: Thank you, Gwen.