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Israeli Ambassador to U.S. Michael Oren: Israel Plans to ‘Protect Our Citizens’

November 15, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren characterizes the recent offensive in Gaza as a measured response to the terrorist group of Hamas, who had been launching rockets into Israel prior to their airstrikes, and fired more in response. Ray Suarez talks to Oren about civilian casualties and what moves Israel may make next.
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TRANSCRIPT

RAY SUAREZ: Earlier, I spoke with the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, to discuss the latest developments.

Ambassador, what’s the latest from Tel Aviv? Were the strikes accurate? Have missiles actually hit the city and is anyone hurt?

MICHAEL OREN, Israeli Ambassador to the United States: Thankfully, nobody was hurt. The rockets struck in the greater Tel Aviv area.

The alarms went off, the sirens. Prime Minister Netanyahu, who was in the city at the time, went down to a bomb shelter.

And now this simply means that 4.5 million Israelis — that is over half the population of the state of Israel — has come under rocket fire from terrorists within Gaza.

RAY SUAREZ: Does this represent a significant in the range and abilities of people who would shoot at Israeli cities?

MICHAEL OREN: Well, it certainly represents an escalation in the fighting.

We knew that terrorists in Gaza had Iranian-supplied long-range missiles. Our aircraft has managed to neutralize a great number of those missiles. Some of them were located in densely populated areas, in mosques, under schools and playgrounds. In one case, one of our pilots targeted one of those long-range missiles and then aborted at the last minute because he saw children playing in the vicinity.

And here you see the type of price we pay for trying to avert as much as possible civilian casualties.

RAY SUAREZ: How does Israel plan to respond to this attack?

MICHAEL OREN: We have extensive intelligence on the deployment of terrorist rockets and other assets, other military stockpiles, arsenals, firing pits in the Gaza Strip.

And, look, we have conducted more than 200 sorties, 200 aerial attacks, and there’s been very minimal collateral damage. Whatever civilian casualties have occurred, we deeply regret. We’re doing our best to avoid them, but we’re fighting against a terrorist group which is on one hand doing its best to kill our civilians — and three of our civilians were killed last night and two children wounded — at the same time, they’re hiding behind their own civilians.

And that’s the difference between a democratic state and a terrorist organization.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you have talked about trying to minimize civilian casualties. You have talked about an aborted strike. In a place as densely populated as Gaza, is it possible to minimize civilian casualties or are they just part of what’s going to happen?

MICHAEL OREN: It’s difficult. And this is — it is difficult, again, because we’re dealing with Hamas and other terrorist organizations who are literally using their own civilian population as human shields.

They’re putting these rockets in schools, in mosques, near hospitals, even in homes. We have pictures of rockets in homes because they not only have a military strategy. They have a media strategy. They want pictures of civilian casualties to make the front page of newspapers around the world.

We’re doing our best to deny them that ability and through very surgical precision strikes to take out the rockets with which these terrorists want to kill our civilians.

RAY SUAREZ: But can the tit for tat become endless? Is there a point at which more attacks might not make your people safer, but just invite more counterattacks?

MICHAEL OREN: Well, there’s no tit for tat here.

Prior to the beginning of s operation, the population of Southern Israel, over a million people — that would be the equivalent of about 40 million, 50 million Americans — were huddling in bomb shelters. They had been hit by close to 1,000 rockets.

No government in the world could sustain and remain passive in the face of such outrageous aggression for very long. So, Israel demonstrated, I think, superhuman restraint for a long time, until the situation become intolerable, and then it had to act.

I think that the message had been given to Hamas. It’s been a strong message. I hope they internalize it, and I hope they back down.

RAY SUAREZ: There was an initial small call-up of reservists followed by a much larger one. How should that be seen by the rest of the world?

MICHAEL OREN: Well, I hope it’s being seen by Hamas as that we are willing to take any measure necessary to defend our citizens, whether in the air or on the ground, and we are making the preparations to ensure that those measures can be mounted if necessary.

Again, we are going to do everything we can to protect our citizens.

RAY SUAREZ: Is Israel prepared to make the same kind of incursion into Gaza Strip that it did in 2009?

MICHAEL OREN: Well, we hope it won’t come toll that.

We hope that Hamas and these terrorist organizations will get the message and they will stand down. But, again, we are prepared to take those measures, difficult that they may be. And, remember, we have a lot of skin in the game. I personally have skin in the game. I have got a son who is an officer in the Israeli army right now.

The last thing we want to do is see this thing escalate. Hamas has escalated. Hamas has just fired rockets at Tel Aviv. We want nothing more than peace to be restored to our citizens.

RAY SUAREZ: Ambassador Oren, thanks for joining us.

MICHAEL OREN: Pleasure.

JEFFREY BROWN: We had hoped to follow Ray’s interview with Ambassador Oren with an interview with Hamas representative Osama Hamdan. He had agreed to talk to us by telephone from Qatar, but canceled late today.

He did, however, defend Hamas rocket attacks on Israel during an off-camera conversation with the NewsHour saying, “I think, when you are facing an occupation, an armed occupation with air support and the best weapons made in the U.S., you do the best you can.”

We will post more comments from him on our website this evening. Plus, you can view a slide show that captures the day’s dramatic events in Israel and Gaza online.