WASHINGTON – Imagine the nightmare scenario of 200 million Americans running into bomb shelters every few hours.
It would be a national emergency of almost unprecedented proportions for this country.
Yet that is the equivalent of what Israel is experiencing at this very moment, according to Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer.
He vividly brought to life the horror Israelis are stoically facing before a small gathering in the basement of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday.
The ambassador described how, for the first time, Hamas is using long-range rockets that threaten six million people, or three-quarters of Israel’s total population.
Half of the Israeli population was said to have spent the last two nights in bomb shelters.
If America faced the same existential threat, Dermer declared, it would take the same steps to defend itself that Israel is currently undertaking.
The occasion was a long-planned symposium on the legitimacy of Israel’s security fence organized by numerous pro-Israel groups including B’nai B’rith and EMET, but Dermer mesmerized those in the packed meeting room with the latest accounts of Israel under attack.
The ambassador said 250 rockets had been fired at Israel in the last two days alone. Some of the long range missiles had been smuggled in by land and sea, but, he revealed, Hamas had also developed rocket factories.
Remarkably, no serious casualties have been reported, thanks to Israel’s missile defense shield, called Iron Dome, which Dermer called “enormously effective, as proven by events of recent days.”
He described how gratifying it was to hear the Israeli military’s chief of staff describe to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the high rate of missiles intercepted, reported to be around 90 percent.
But, even as the rocket attacks from Hamas escalate, the real problem Dermer described wasn’t one of weapons, but of polar opposite attitudes.
While Israel goes to great lengths to prevent civilian casualties, Hamas, he said, measured success by the number of innocent civilians it kills.
He called that something “no army in the history of the world has ever done,” saying Hamas is committing innumerable war crimes.
That is why, Demer insisted, all claims of moral equivalency between Hamas and Israel must be rejected.
Furthermore, the ambassador observed, Hamas has no respect for even it’s own civilians, purposefully placing them in harm’s way and using them as human shields by placing their missile batteries next to hospitals and schools.
Hamas launched the current round of attacks after the deaths of four teenagers.
First, Palestinians kidnapped and murdered three teenage boys, two Israelis and an American. Then Israeli extremists kidnapped and killed a Palestinian.
The difference in reactions was telling, Dermer said.
When the Arab boy was murdered, the ambassador said, 99.99 percent of Israelis were embarrassed and disgusted that a Jew could perpetuate such a crime.
Israeli Prime Netanyahu condemned the crime and personally apologized to the boy’s family, and on Tuesday Israeli police arrested six Jews suspected of the murder.
There was no reciprocal action on the part of the Palestinians, whose leaders, Dermer said, had celebrated the killing of the Israeli teens.
The steps Israel takes to protect civilians and the lengths Hamas goes to harm them is, he said, “the difference between our society and theirs.”
“Our leaders do not hail murderers as heroes. We don’t name public squares after killers.”
“It’s not the same on both sides. And that moral difference makes all the difference,” the ambassador observed.
Dermer recalled how, until he was in war room with the prime minister, he did not truly appreciate the incredible lengths Israel goes to protect civilians, which he called “unbelievable.”
The ambassador described how international law and morality are always considered before Israeli military leaders take any action, “probably unlike any other country in the history of the world.”
Countless operations have not been conducted because of concerns for the safety of civilians on the other side, he said.
For instance, the ambassador said he personally saw a rocket attack aborted because surveillance video showed a child playing in the area.
Dermer addressed the accusation that there is no moral symmetry because Israel has a missile defense and bomb shelters by asking, “What should Israel do, not protect itself?”
He thanked the U.S. Congress and the White House for their support and investment in the Iron Dome missile defense, which, he said, had saved countless lives and, just as importantly, kept the current violence from escalating dramatically.
However, Israel is facing an unprecedented threat from the long-range missiles, with air-raid sirens ringing out in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv over the last few days, as Palestinians launched their biggest attack on the Jewish state in years.
After Hamas fired hundreds of rockets and numerous mortars over the last few days, and after it repeatedly ignored offers for a truce made by Prime Minister Netanyahu, Israel launched a military campaign against called Operation Protective Edge.
The Israeli Air Force hit 150 targets in Gaza, including 100 underground rocket launchers, 10 attack tunnels and three homes used by Hamas as command and control centers. Hamas leadership is reportedly hiding in tunnels under hospitals. Israel also stopped an attempted Palestinian incursion from the sea.
The Israeli army has called up 40,000 reservists to replace forces in the West Bank, so they can be redeployed to Gaza. It is not clear yet if Israel will launch a major, sustained ground operation into Gaza.
Prime Minister Netanyahu spent most of Tuesday on the phone with world leaders, explaining why Israel felt it was necessary to take military action.
Israel has said peace talks with Palestinians are useless now that the Palestinian Authority, which governs the West Bank, has entered a power sharing agreement with Hamas, which rules Gaza and is dedicated to wiping Israel off the map.
Addressing the original purpose of Wednesday’s symposium, Ambassador Dermer defended the Israeli security fence in the West Bank.
He acknowledged it could be skirted, calling it “good but not perfect,” but also insisted it had greatly reduced terror.
Dermer said some say it’s not possible to stop terror with a military, “But if you stop 99 percent, that’s pretty good.”
The ambassador said he would support anything that “prevents more snipers from killing children riding in cars.”
Dermer said the fence had also disproven a cliche, claiming it is not true that good fences make good neighbors.
“We don’t have good neighbors. It (the fence) hasn’t changed them. They still hate us. They hate us because of rampant incitement learned in schools and passed along by generations.”
Symposium organizer and Washington, D.C., attorney Richard Heideman was adamant, insisting, “Let it be clear, the fence is not an apartheid wall. It is to keep out terrorists, not to keep anyone in.”
He said the fence was not meant to establish a border but to save lives.
Frederick Lawrence, president of Brandeis University, added a somber observation, rendered especially poignant on Wednesday as Hamas launched fresh waves of attacks on the Jewish state, that “Israel is the only country that has to defend its right to exist.”