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Israel's Deputy Minister For Public Diplomacy Discusses Response To Gaza Protests


Yesterday on the program, we brought you voices from Gaza. The Israeli military killed dozens of people there this week in protests at the border. The Gaza Health Ministry says more than 2,700 people were wounded. Israel disputes that number. Now we're going to hear from the official in the Israeli government who handles Gaza. Michael Oren is deputy minister for public diplomacy in the Prime Minister's Office. Welcome to the program.

MICHAEL OREN: Good to be with you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: I'd like to start by playing you something that one of the protesters told us yesterday. Amer Abu Al Qumsan is 29, unemployed, says he's not affiliated with Hamas or any political organization. Here's what he told us speaking through an interpreter.


AMER ABU AL QUMSAN: (Through interpreter) The Israelis are saying that we're provoking them, and that's not true. We are peacefully protesting, and that's evident. Look at the injuries. There are no Israeli soldiers injured.

SHAPIRO: Do you believe that the Israeli military's response was appropriate and proportional?

OREN: I think it was inescapable. I think we had no other choice. We had 40,000 people coming toward our border. On the other side of the border is our civilians. This is not a peaceful protest. According to the organizers, according to Hamas, the protest was designed to break through the border, to kill Israelis and destroy our country. So it's not the image of, you know, the civil rights movement here.

This is a - an enemy territory under the control of a terrorist organization which is dedicated to our destruction. And our soldiers had no other means to stop them other than using the means that they did use. And to the degree that people were killed, it's entirely on the shoulders of Hamas, Ari. And Hamas today came out and reported that 50 of the 60 people reported killed were actually Hamas terrorists.

SHAPIRO: Hamas also said those 50 people were unarmed.

OREN: Well, that's - that would be - come as a big surprise to our soldiers who came under intensive fire from those Hamas terrorists.

SHAPIRO: You say there was no other choice for the Israeli military. Could they have used less-lethal means such as rubber bullets rather than live ammunition?

OREN: They used plenty of rubber bullets. Rubber bullets have a very short range, and gas is very ineffective. There actually is no other effective method we know of defending the border. And the choice is - you know, is paying a price in terms of, you know, tough interviews like this one or letting these terrorists come through the border and kill our civilians. And for us, that's a no-brainer.

SHAPIRO: You've said and American officials have also said that this was organized and orchestrated by Hamas. We've heard from Palestinian groups across the political spectrum that this was not solely organized by Hamas, that this was really a widespread protest that began with youth, had the participation of Fatah and other groups that the U.S. does not consider terrorist organizations. How do you respond to that?

OREN: Well, I've heard that also, and yet I've looked at repeated documents that have been taken from the actual field with instructions from Hamas. Understand what this is about. This is about - and I don't mean this in an offensive way, Ari. This is about having this interview. This is what Hamas wants. It wants its civilians to get killed so that we'll be condemned for war crimes. And that will enable them to both delegitimize Israel, deny us the right to defend ourselves, even deny us the right to exist. This is what they are. They're a jihadist, medieval organization.

SHAPIRO: I want to note that there were people in Gaza we spoke to who gave a different account of how they ended up at the border, that they went voluntarily. But if you see this protest and the Israeli response as a provocation by Hamas to make Israel look bad, do you think Israel made a mistake by playing into their hands and following through with what Hamas expected Israel to do and incurring the international condemnation that we now see?

OREN: You know, it's a good question. But in essence, we had no choice. If there were less-lethal means of doing this, we would have used them. And in fact, we dropped leaflets. We basically pleaded with the Palestinians over the new media, over the regular media not to come to the border. Everyone knows where they can come up to that border and remain safe. They passed it - every means we used to avert this. But it's - at the end of the day, it's not a choice. It's something we have to do.

SHAPIRO: This week began with a moment of celebration for Prime Minister Netanyahu and others in the government, including yourself, as the U.S. Embassy opened in Jerusalem. Gazans have told us that embassy opening contributed to the scale of the protests. Given the international reaction that you're seeing today, do you still wholeheartedly believe that the U.S. made the right move?

OREN: Wholeheartedly and more. And the protests had nothing to do with moving the embassy. It has to do with Hamas and Hamas' agenda, the fact that the Palestinians in Gaza could take advantage of the world stage afforded to them by the opening of the embassy. It wouldn't have mattered when the embassy was opened. And, you know, from our historical perspective, if Israel had to gauge and calibrate its decisions on the basis of world reactions or even Arab reactions, I wouldn't be sitting here, having this interview with you. So every once in a while, we have to actually do what's in our interest irrespective of possible repercussions or reactions either from the Arab world or from, you know, other quarters in the world.

SHAPIRO: This does seem like a cycle that repeats every few years where there are protests on the Gaza border; civilians die at the hands of the Israeli military; there is international condemnation. Is there a way that the Israeli government can help break this cycle? I know you've said Hamas needs to take different steps. Are there different steps that Israel needs to take?

OREN: In Gaza - I got to be very honest with you. I have been in charge of Gaza for the Israeli government for now about a year and a half, and I will tell you unequivocally that there's nothing more that Israel could have done. I mean, Hamas has created a humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Israel is actually the only country that had open border crossings to Gaza.

The maritime blockade did not keep out food, did not keep out medicines. They only kept out materials that can be used to hurt Israelis. And Hamas burnt the crossings. Hamas burnt the fuel lines into Gaza to create a humanitarian crisis, to create despair and drive people toward the border so they can break through the border and try to kill our civilians. That is basically Gaza in a nutshell. It's very difficult - and I understand this - for your listeners to understand a Middle Eastern reality which is very remote from them.

So for Gaza - not a lot of hope. I wish there were. I think the biggest hope is on what we call Judea and Samaria at the West Bank. If we can move the Palestinian issue at least on the West Bank to a better place - maybe not peace tomorrow but a better place, change the status quo - then those Sunni Arab countries, particularly in the Gulf, who want to have an open alliance with us can do so and that all of us can stand, Arabs and Israelis alike, against Iranian aggression in the Middle East.

SHAPIRO: Michael Oren is deputy minister for public diplomacy in the Israeli Prime Minister's Office. Thank you for joining us.

OREN: Thank you for having me on, Ari. Be well. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: May 15, 2018 at 9:00 PM PDT
A previous headline and version of this story incorrectly identified Michael Oren as Israel's deputy prime minister. Oren is the deputy minister for public diplomacy in the prime minister's office.