Israeli warplanes were attacking Hamas rocket-launching sites Sunday in the Gaza Strip while an Israeli diplomat was in Clarence to thank the U.S. government and the American people for their support in “standing with Israel.”

“It’s clear that the United States and Israel have never been closer together,” said Gil Lainer, consul for public affairs in Israel’s Consulate General in New York City.

“There is a great friendship between our two peoples and our two governments. Without your support, we would not have the ‘Iron Dome’ rocket-defense system,” which shot down about 250 Hamas-fired rockets last week.

Lainer addressed an audience estimated at as many as 600 people at a program called “Buffalo Celebrates Israel,” in Eastern Hills Wesleyan Church, Clarence. The Rev. Pat Jones, pastor of the church, declared that “Buffalo has to stand with Israel.”

The hostilities along the Gaza Strip have a deeply personal meaning for Lainer because his sister’s husband is among the 75,000 reserve troops that the Israeli Defense Ministry has authorized for call-up ahead of a possible ground offensive against Hamas-controlled Gaza. And his wife’s brother has been forced into a bomb shelter with their 4- and 2-year-old children.

The public affairs consul said that 4.5 million Israelis are under direct threat from Hamas.

“We have shown incredible restraint. We don’t want war,” Lainer said, “but we were forced to act militarily” to end months of rocket fire from the Hamas-ruled territory.

The Rev. Robert Stearns, identified as “the visionary behind the global Day of Prayer for the Peace of Jerusalem,” echoed the pastor’s remarks.

“Western New York stands with Israel,” Stearns said.

“There are more than 40 different churches and ministries here. The issues that face Israel are the issues that face the world. … There is a unity between Bible-believing Christians and Israelis.”

Lainer, the Israeli counsel, responded that his country is “a bastion of freedom in an ocean of oppression. We are the only democracy in the region. We are a truly free society,” with many of the same freedoms that are guaranteed in the U.S. Bill of Rights.

“We have tried tirelessly to work around the civilian population in defending ourselves,” Lainer said in an interview before he addressed the audience.

“Our target is to stop the shooting. We have sent leaflets and text messages to civilians in the Gaza Strip asking them to move out of harm’s way.

“We don’t want to hurt civilians, but Hamas has installed its missile launchers in residential neighborhoods and schools, and we have to protect ourselves from them. Just today, one of their missiles struck a house in Israel, but the family was not at home – they were in a bomb shelter.

“We live in a very tightly knit community,” Lainer added. “Israel is only about the size of New Jersey.”

Before being assigned to the Israeli consulate in New York, Lainer was a counselor in the Bureau for Middle East Economy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem, where he worked to establish the Israeli government’s current policy of humanitarian aid and projects in the Gaza Strip.