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Far from home as peace hopes fade

Israel Ambassador Yuval Rotem at the Embassy of Israel in Canberra.

Israel Ambassador Yuval Rotem at the Embassy of Israel in Canberra. Photo: Jay Cronan

Quiet Canberra is a world away from the Middle East, in more ways than one.

As Israeli ambassador Yuval Rotem awoke on Friday to news that his city, Tel Aviv, was under attack, he was, once again, far from home.

When rockets last fell on Tel Aviv - more than two decades ago, during the Gulf War in Iraq - the diplomat was representing his country in the United Nations in New York.

It was ''almost impossible'' to describe the anxiety of that day in 1991, he said.

''You try to reach your family and you can't. Everyone was in the [bomb] shelters … I was unable to reach them for hours.''

Israel is mobilising troops for war again, not that it had enjoyed much peace.

Militant groups from the Palestinian territory of Gaza have fired more than 350 rockets into Israel this week.

Yet it was the rocket that fell on relatively serene Tel Aviv - which lies 70 kilometres from Gaza and had been out of range of Hamas's attacks - that most unsettled Israelis.

When Mr Rotem awoke and read online that his city had been under fire, he thought first of his family. ''We are all Tel Avivians. My parents, my in-laws, cousins and uncles.''

However, the 52-year-old ambassador said the attacks affected every Israeli, especially those in the south near Gaza.

''Those children who cannot go to school, those children who are sitting in shelters,'' he said.

''Not from this Wednesday, but [since the attacks which began] many more days before then.''

On this point, Mr Rotem echoes his government's frustration with non-government organisations, the United Nations and some Western media, saying the attacks of past weeks ''were not on the radar'' and went unnoticed.

''There is a baddy called the Human Rights Council in Geneva. You don't hear any word of sympathy or concern when the basic rights of Israelis are undermined.''

As part of its information war, Israel's military has accompanied its latest wave of air strikes with an unusually gung-ho social-media campaign.

It has live-blogged its attacks and published video on Thursday of the assassination of Hamas military leader Ahmed Said Khalil al-Jabari.

Mr Rotem, who has held high-profile public relations roles throughout his career, made no apologies for the campaign's irreverent tone.

''You look at Hamas, Islamic Jihad, all of those radical, fundamentalist, extremist guys on the other side,'' he said.

''They are monstering us through these new media and you're trying to tell us we can't …

''They use it every day to undermine us in a language which calls for genocide for Israelis, and no one makes any comment about it.

''We try to counter that. Thank God we are very good with technology and a very innovative people.''

Mr Rotem also praised Israel's Iron Dome missile defence system, which has destroyed most of the rockets heading towards residential areas. He said it wasn't only saving Israelis' lives; it was staving off a massive retaliation against Palestinians.

''Imagine if those 200 or 300 rockets had hit Israeli communities without being intercepted. Many [within the Israeli government] would be given no room but to retaliate quite decisively.’''

The ambassador, who has served in Australia for five years, said he hoped sensible leadership in the region, particularly from Egypt, would see all sides commit to negotiation.

''If we don’t sit and talk, it’s a recipe for this kind of escalation.''

Mr Rotem will address a rally outside Israel's embassy in Yarralumla at 9.30am on Sunday.

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