‘This was a war against the Hamas; not a war against the Palestinians’

In this <B>Idea Exchange</B> moderated by <B><font color="#cc000">Senior Editor Mihir Sharma</font></B>,<B>Israeli ambassador</B> <B><font color="#cc000">Mark Sofer</font></B> explains Israel’s role in Gaza and why his country understands India’s response to the Mumbai attacks

Published: February 8, 2009 9:40 pm

&#149;Mihir Sharma: Will you say something about the Gaza strip?

One of the saddest aspects of the fighting in Gaza is that it never should have happened. We should never have been in the situation of a military confrontation in Gaza. That is particularly tragic. From our perspective,Israeli society is a split society in every which way,but on the question of Gaza,I think it was absolutely unanimous. Frankly,we had reached a point where it was impossible to go on like this any longer. The country,the southern part of the country,had been under a barrage of rockets,missiles and mortar shells for over six years. Somewhere in the region of 20,000-30,000 rockets fired at Israeli civilians in southern Israel saw up to 500,000 people permanently within 15 seconds of a bomb shelter. Over a period of time,this is an impossible situation for any country to stomach. If say,Kolkata was bombarded for a period of 6-7 years,by even crude missiles from another country or territory,how would India react?

I do think that the first priority of any serious government is to ensure the security of its citizens. And that military confrontation must always be the last resort. Everything that can be done,must be done,prior to the use of any type of military component. This must include the economic inducements,political machinations,diplomatic or even an economic carrot and stick approach. We had really and truly tried everything and in the past six months,reached a truce. It was brokered by Egypt and stipulated two things: that the missiles be stopped for a six-month period and everything would go back to normal. What actually happened in that six-month period was that the missiles hardly stopped for a day.

During the truce period,one doesn’t want to take any type of measures,the only way open to us was to say please stop,we cannot go on with this,you’re endangering yourselves,you’re endangering us,we won’t continue to agree to a truce. Despite the total inadequacy of the truce,despite the horrors that we were continuing to face,we did ask for a prolongation – actually,we begged for the prolongation of the truce. Not only was it rejected out of hand but in actual fact,in the last three days of the truce,there were another 300 rockets in 3 days. The President of Egypt,the President of the Palestinian Authority,and other countries that were trying to get things back to some kind of normalcy,put the blame,squarely on Hamas because they were the ones who had decided that they would throw missiles at innocent people. Can you think of the amount of danger and damage 30,000 “crude” missiles can cause? This wasn’t a question of missile against missile but of trying to stop a reign of terror,a reign of complete and utter instability which we have been facing for so long.

If anybody can believe for a minute,that we had anything but the best of will and the best of intention towards the Palestinians in Gaza,they need only look at facts. In 2005,Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza,we didn’t get anything back,we did it solely to try and reignite the peace process in the Middle East. That was the idea prevailing at the time. It cost us $ 2.5 billion; we were forced to take out,of our own volition,8,000 families who had been living there all their lives. We uprooted them,took them into Israel — it was a big issue inside Israel. But we did it in order to try to move something along here. A few months went by and there were elections in the Palestinian territory,and a government was set up between the Hamas and the Palestinian Authority,a joint government in the West Bank and in Gaza under President Mahmood Abbas. A few months passed and Hamas ousted the Palestinian Authority,killed about 450 Palestinians – something that wasn’t very widely reported. Then,the rockets restarted in all their fury.

Now this was the situation that we found ourselves in at the end of 2008. There comes a time when all other efforts fail,when one has to take the ultimate measure in order to try and stop the incessant flow of rocketry. And that time had come,consensual in Israel,consensual in the Arab world,consensual in the international community.

But what has come out in the press in recent weeks is something that causes us to raise an eyebrow. Questions of proportion came up,questions of the use of force. Issues were brought up which frankly are flabbergasting — that fewer Israelis were killed than Palestinians. This has come up quite a lot but if we think about it in more depth,we would maybe look at things a little differently. In Kargil,for example,many more Pakistanis died than Indians. I doubt whether that makes Pakistan correct. This is not a question of proportionality because in a war against terrorism,in a war against violence,it is a fight against infrastructure,it is a fight of moderation against extremism,it is not a chess game. Of course,we would never dream of targeting uninvolved people,period. The figures that were given out from the Gaza operation,those numbers were whipped up

I may add that when we are being criticised by the international community and see what else is happening in the world and listen to criticism from the Arab world,then I look at Sudan,I look at Darfur where 750,000 people have been killed,raped and murdered. I don’t think we need to be taught by the people who are carrying out the Darfur massacres. What we do need is to constantly re-examine ourselves. Because humanity is humanity and the death of a Palestinian is as hurtful to me as a death of an Israeli — as long as they are completely un-involved in the Hamas. This was a war against the Hamas,this was not a war against the Palestinians. We believe strongly that the Palestinian society is the victim,as we are,of some of their own extremist leadership in Hamas.

I think though that now we maybe moving into a slightly different mould. I think we could perhaps begin to reapply ourselves to a renewal of the peace process in the Middle East. The peace process in the Middle East is not a pipe-dream. We agree with the pragmatic Palestinians,the vast majority of the Palestinian and Arab world that the solution to West Asian conflict is at hand. It’s not easy,there are tough issues on the table. Nonetheless,we do agree,completely,on the contours of peace in West Asia. The contours of peace being a two-state solution,Israel living side by side,next to Palestine,in mutual harmony and security. There are tough issues for both sides which need to be tackled. These include refugees,Palestinian refugees,the issue of Jerusalem,the question of settlements. For us the most important thing is the complete cessation of terror.

&#149;Mihir Sharma: There is a growing feeling that people will start looking at the numbers of people of Arab descent and the numbers of people of Israeli descent who live in the territory that is controlled by the Israeli government. What if instead of a two-state solution,we have a one state solution,one vote for everybody,and suddenly we’re looking at the end of Israel as it is traditionally known. As a diplomat,how are you preparing for this argument?

This is not a new idea. It’s being propounded by two types of people: those who don’t believe that the state of Israel should exist,or those who have an ideological viewpoint that nation states is passé,a sort of Marxist view of the world.

Could you please show me one state in the world where this one-state solution has been so successful? Lebanon? Afghanistan? Should we look at Ireland or Cyprus? Wherever one looks,it is a recipe for further conflict. We would like to live side by side with our Palestinian neighbours,brothers,cousins. I think they would like to live side by side with us. But we don’t live in the same worlds,we are Jewish,they are Muslim,we listen to this type of music,they listen to that — it’s very similar to other parts of the world that have tried this and have completely failed. And even in Western countries which have two peoples,there hasn’t been a very easy relationship. The answer has to be in the two-state solution. It took us,both Israelis and Arabs,time to come around to that idea as well. We should be honest with ourselves on that. For the first many years,there were many Israelis who thought there could never be peace and we cannot have a state because it would be an irredentist??? state of Palestine which would bring destruction to the state of Israel. The Arab world didn’t want the state of Israel. But we have both moved on. Today,we are in agreement and looking to move ahead. To throw that into the dustbin of history and move back is frankly spurious to say the least.

&#149;Rakesh Sinha: Last week,Iran launched its first homegrown satellite. That’s also a demonstration of their weapon delivery capability. In the Israeli assessment,how far is Iran from a nuclear weapon?

The issue of nuclear weaponry in Iran is something that is very troubling to the world as a whole. I think that the threat of Iran is great. I should start by saying that Israel has no quarrel whatsoever with the Iranian people. Iran is a great civilization and has created so much culture in the international society. Yet they are,unfortunately,held in the hand of a coterie of extremist Islamists. This isn’t Islam,this is an abuse of Islam,to my mind. Islam is a religion of peace,harmony and culture. But we hear day in and day out from the leadershhip that the state of Israel has to be wiped off the map. We hear from President Ahmedinejad himself that the Holocaust never existed. When we hear from the Iranian leadership that it will go against the peace process of the Middle East,that it will support the worst terrorist organizations,then I think we have to ask ourselves,what kind of regime are we dealing with here? It’s despicable that a President of a country should call for the eradication of another country. It’s unheard of. Now the international community is very worried: Iran is one of the countries in the international arena that is under U.N. sanctions. As a result of that,the G-6 are leading the way against Iran. As we move towards peace in the Middle East and as we try and concretize the ideas which are so difficult for both us and the Palestinians,we have here a state which is actively working to undermine the accommodation between Israel and the Arab world.

We really ought to work diplomatically through all the methods at our disposal,as a civilized international community,to stop Iran from attaining its nefarious aims.

&#149;Manu Pubby: On defense relations with India,could you tell us more about some of the new missiles we’ll be getting from Israel?

We never ever discuss these issues in the public domain. That’s not to say that there is or isn’t a relationship,but as a principle,we never discuss this in the public domain,and I don’t think we’ll depart from that.

But I want to say something about Mumbai 26/11: it was a defiling of India,it was a disgrace. An atrocity the likes of which shocked us all. Of course the brunt of the horror descended on Indian people but,not by accident,Israelis and Jews were targeted as well. Of the 10 terrorists from the Lashkar-e-Toiba who came here,two of them were dispatched just to kill Jews and Israelis in a house miles away from the centre of the action — clearly not by accident. There has to be incessant international action otherwise we will all find ourselves falling prey to international jehadists. We are fully behind India,100 per cent because we know what terrorism means,we know how difficult it is for democratic societies which have human rights,human values,to deal with it. We know what happens when organisations and states are in denial,and say we don’t have anything to do with this. We know all of it,we’ve been going through it for so long. The L-e-T is like Hamas,they’re fanatical killers who have used death and destruction,slaughter as a means of achieving a political,extremist aim. Whatever decision is made by India,we’re behind it.

&#149;Mini Kapoor: Who are these pragmatic Arab regimes you referred to and do you see them playing a more overt role in the coming days in the peace process?

These countries are Egypt,Jordon,Morocco and others in the Gulf world. I don’t see Saudi Arabia as being of the extremist ilk. These countries are not supporting terror against Jews. There is an enormous amount of pragmatism in the Arab world. Does that mean that the extremists have been sidelined,does that mean that those who support the hard line are no longer there? Unfortunately,it doesn’t. But the pragmatism gives us a lot of heart as we try and move this enormous monster called the peace process forward. Nobody said it was going to be a picnic. But I do think we ought to break away from the mudslinging,it’s not a public relations exercise that we’re involved in. I think we owe something to our children,be they Israeli,Arab,Palestinian and that something is a better life. Let’s try and break away from the bashing business,because it doesn’t take peace one iota forward.

&#149;Ruchika Talwar: How do you think Israel’s relationship with Turkey is going to be affected by the recent spat between President Erdogan and President Shimon Peres at Davos,considering that Turkey is a stakeholder in the Middle East peace process?

The Israeli-Turkish relationship goes back very far. It’s had it’s ups and downs in the past and I think one should be careful about what happened in Davos which I saw was generally wrongly reported as a spat between Erdogan and Peres. President Erdogan was actually more upset with the moderator and not at what was being said there,but I’m not sure what the truth is because I wasn’t there. The Israeli-Turkish relationship is a strong relationship and we’ll certainly overcome this or that difficulty or opinion. What is necessary and what is already happening is a high-level dialogue between the two countries since the incident. It won’t develop into anything of any substance,the relationship is far too close.

&#149;Amitabh Sinha: The Israeli no-negotiation policy in hostage situations is very often cited in India as the most effective way to deal with such situations. Our home minister recently said the no-negotiation theory cannot be absolute,it depends upon the situation. How does Israel go about it?

We’ve been suffering terrorism since our inception and we don’t believe in giving into terror. I don’t care if one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. There are those who continue to see the Hamas as some kind of beautiful preacher of sweetness and light. The international community put on the table three conditions before them: number one is recognition of Israel,number two is to stop slaughtering the people of the state of Israel,and third,all of the agreements that have been decided between Israel and the Palestinians and Israel and the Arab world in the last 60 years should not be thrown into the dust-heap of history. They have refused point blank to budge on any of those issues but they have to take responsibilities as a serious actor and not a rabid terrorist organisation. We don’t have a hard and fast rule,when there is way of moving forward,we will take that. But with the Bin Ladens of the world,with fundamental killers,that usually does not happen. We have prisoner swaps,sometimes,because we don’t want hostages to be in the hands of killers.

&#149;Coomi Kapoor: Where does India figure in the priorities of Israel?

Our biggest embassy in Asia is in India and it’s one of our biggest embassies in the world. We have had relations for about 16 and a half years now,which is nothing,and we have 4.5 billion dollars worth of mutual trade – up from 200 million in 1992. It is an extremely vibrant relationship in the economic and agricultural field,particularly. We have the largest agricultural programme with India in four states. This is one of the most dynamic relations that ever happened between two countries in 16 years.

&#149;Dhiraj Nayyar: Back to West Asia: do you think Abbas and the older generation of the Palestinian leadership is credible or is Israel engaging with a younger generation of leadership which is more credible?

I don’t support everything they stand for — we’re on the opposite side of conflict situation but at the end of the day,despite the deepest disagreements I have with the leadership of the Palestinian Authority,they are 100 per cent dedicated to bringing an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and not through violence,killing or causing danger to the Israelis and Palestinians. I don’t agree with their approach on each and every issue,but I do believe that they have the best interests of the Palestinians at heart.

&#149;Dhiraj Nayyar: There’s a theory that for a lasting solution,even if the extremists are a fringe on both sides,you need someone from those fringes to sell it to their constituencies.

It’s rather like saying that in order to come to peace with Bin Laden,we have to become a feudal society which we never will be. I don’t think we have to take it upon ourselves to adopt the views of the extremists in order to bring them into a process. We will never be able to agree with those whose sole credo is the eradication of the state of Israel. Those people are not part of any negotiation process,the minute they move away from that position of mass murder we will have something to talk about. And when that happens,there are ways to inch towards the middle ground. We have to educate people towards peace. But the major threat to peace is terrorism. The fact that Hamas has been elected in the Gaza strip does not give them the legitimacy to murder. I don’t think that being elected is the be all and end all of legitimacy.

&#149;Mihir Sharma: Strictly speaking,the Iranian President’s office issued a clarification weeks after the “wiped off the map” statement was widely reported,that the translation should not be considered as something about mass murder,but of political change.

He has made this statement 20 times since. I don’t know what it means when the president of a country says that he wants another country wiped off the map and then we start quibbling about what that exactly means — is it mass murder or is it a little bit murder? I don’t know what that means. What does it mean that you don’t want to kill the people but you want the state to disappear? I am not going to discuss with anybody,be it Ahmedinejad or Hamas,the disappearance of my state. We’re talking here about a president who insists that a country disappears,we’re not talking about the number of people he kills in order to achieve that. They are moving towards nuclear weapons now,against who and what for?

&#149;Gayatri Verma: How do you react to the theory that says all this violence,all this killing of fundamentalists only gives rise to hundreds more? What about the sanctions and blockades that Israel has imposed around the Gaza strip which has paralysed their economy?

What were we supposed to do? We’re always told what we mustn’t do,you mustn’t use military components,etc. But nobody tells us what we can do. If anybody can come up with what we could have done after eight years of bombardment,of coming to a truce,of getting out of Gaza completely with nothing in return,of economic inducements and punishment,I’d like to know what it is,because I really don’t know. We’re always being lectured by countries who do much worse than us,but we always bear the brunt of the violence. These hypocrisies bother me. In a conflict situation,mistakes are made. The best way not to make those mistakes is not to be in a conflict situation. The most tragic thing about Gaza is that it never needed to have happened. But we have to defend ourselves,we’re not going to sit around and allow ourselves to be bombarded.

&#149;Alia Allana: If Iran is willing to unclench its fist,as is being advertised,would Israel change its policy?

Which policy? We don’t have an automatic negative policy towards Iran,we just abhor what they’re doing towards us. We haven’t got a policy towards Iran that is knee-jerk hostility. They’re Shia and the Hamas are Sunni. But when it comes to us,this divide becomes insignificant. All we’re saying is that stop supporting those who are attacking us,stop denying the Holocaust,stop getting nuclear weapons and stop calling for our eradication.

Transcribed by Anushree Mazumdar

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