Peter Fabricius spoke to Arthur Lenk, Israel’s ambassador to South Africa, about the latest conflict between Gaza and Israel.
Johannesburg - Israel’s ambassador to South Africa says he does not apologise for the fact that there were far fewer Israeli than Palestinian casualties in the latest conflict between Gaza and Israel.
As of Tuesday, nearly 200 Palestinians had been killed and many more injured in nine days of Israeli air strikes on Gaza. Four Israelis had been seriously injured in Hamas rocket attacks which began three weeks ago, although none were killed.
Agencies report that Israeli warplanes bombed the home of a senior Hamas leader early Wednesday, as a campaign against Gaza militants entered day nine with no sign of an end to hostilities.
Arthur Lenk - who is to be summoned to the department of international relations to explain his country's bombardment of the Gaza strip - dismisses the criticism on social media of the discrepancy in the casualty toll, rejecting what he calls: “This horrific desire for there to be a balance of pain.
“Israelis are doing everything we can to limit damages, certainly to Israelis, and we have no apology for that.”
The imbalance in casualties boils down to what he calls Hamas’s “death wish” versus Israel’s “life wish”. Israel is trying its best to protect its own people from rockets, while also trying to protect Palestinian civilians as much as possible from Israeli air strikes aimed at Hamas weapons – while Hamas is actually seeking Palestine civilian casualties, he says.
“Our weapons exist to protect our public,” he said in an interview this week. “Their public is put in a place to defend their weapons systems. In other words, under the homes, under the mosques, under the schools, under the hospitals, are weapons. They’re choosing to put their people in danger.
“One of the systems we have in place in Gaza to protect people is called roof knocking. You have a flyover and you hit a very small, light munition on the roof of a building. The public know.
“And also leaflets and radio warnings and phone calls to tell the people you have X amount of time, get out and save yourself.” He says Israel has recordings where voices are heard in response, calling out to the Gaza people instead to: “Go to the roof of this building. Go to the direct line of fire. Serve as human shields to protect these targets because they have weapons hidden in them. They have missiles hidden in the building. It’s horrific. I get no joy, I’m saddened.”
Another measure Israel uses to try to limit civilian Palestine casualties is “cancellation missions” where defence force personnel in spotter planes order pilots of strike craft to abort their strike if they see civilians in the target area.
Israel, he says, is also working hard to protect its own people, mainly through its Iron Dome anti-rocket missile defence system – which he said had, by Monday morning, knocked down 165 of some 800 rockets fired at Israel, mainly from Gaza but also Lebanon and Syria.
Lenk explained that Israel could not afford to attack all the rockets because its Iron Dome missiles cost $60 000 (R643 000) each. But the system could rapidly calibrate the trajectory of the rockets and intercept only those heading for built-up areas, rather than open fields or the sea.
And he said the Israeli public was educated to respond to warnings of incoming rockets – warnings also conveyed on cellphone apps – by heading for shelters.
But Lenk could find himself under pressure as International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane has told the SABC on the sidelines of the Brics summit in Brazil, that he would have to explain the Israeli airstrikes in Gaza. A newspaper also reported today that South Africa was poised to recall its ambassador to Israel, Sisa Ngombane..
Department spokesman Clayson Monyela told the newspaper that no decision had been taken “yet” on whether Ngombane would be recalled.
ike some in the South African Jewish community, Lenk was appalled by an ANC statement last week which implied that Israel was using Nazi tactics. The ANC likened crowded Gaza to the Nazi death camps and urged South Africans to join the Boycott Divestment Sanctions campaign (BDS) which would like to see the isolation of Israel.
Lenk also faulted a government statement last week for calling Israel’s air strikes on Gaza “wanton”.
“The Hamas attacks are wanton, the Israeli attacks are not wanton. The Israeli attacks are pinpoint and carefully aimed and planned, to cause as little damage to human beings as possible… When you send a rocket and you don’t know where it’s going, that’s wanton.
“That said, I appreciate the fact that the South African government recognised that there are two sides and that there is a call on both sides to find a way to move forward, to return to peace talks. And there was a desire to be constructive.”
Lenk said he had told government officials this directly when he met them on Friday and he was glad the two governments were still talking, even though they disagreed.
However, Lenk said he could not predict if the rising demand for greater isolation of Israel – now coming from the ruling party itself – might eventually become government policy.
He noted that many other countries, notably including South Africa’s partners in the Brics forum, were able to maintain strong business and people-to-people relations like those which now existed with South Africa, while also talking frankly about Palestine.
He said he would just continue doing his job, including reaching out to South Africans to defend Israel’s actions.
Lenk has been engaged in a robust debate on Twitter with Israel’s critics. The majority yearn for peace on both sides. But he has also been horrified by what he sees as anti-Semitism.
He agrees that the stand-off between Israel and Gaza must end and peace talks must start. But while it was ann-ounced yesterday that Israel had accepted an Egyptian ceasefire proposal, it instead resumed its air campaign against the Palestinian territory.
Lenk is, however, adamant that neither the stalled wider peace negotiations between Israel and Abbas’s Palestinian Authority, nor Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial continuation of Jewish settlements on the West Bank, have any bearing on what is happening now.
“That’s not this week’s story,” he says. “This week’s story is that the rockets must stop.”
* Peter Fabricius is Independent Newspapers’ foreign editor.