Interview

Published on December 4th, 2014 | by admin

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“What would Ireland and its people do if they were under constant fire from an enemy dedicated to its annihilation?”

SIGNAL talks to Israel’s Ambassador to Ireland, His Excellency Mr Boaz Modai, about the Israeli role in the current conflict in Gaza, its standing in the international community and what its key strategic challenges are.

What was the genesis of ‘Operation Protective Edge’, and how has it evolved militarily from previous Israel Defence Forces (IDF) operations in Gaza such as Cast-Lead?
The ceasefire after ‘Operation Pillar of Defence in 2012’ was not observed by Hamas, which fired scores of missiles into Israel in 2013, and even more in 2014. Israeli military intelligence also calculated that Hamas were expanding their tunnel network into southern Israel – though that network turned out to be more extensive than IDF intelligence realised. The short-term cause of the current operation was the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers in June this year. Israeli intelligence knew it was a Hamas operation, and Hamas suspects were arrested in the west bank. Hamas conducted an intensive rocket bombardment of Israel from Gaza in reprisal, then Israel responded with a campaign of air strikes against known rocket sites within Gaza.

The operation was similar to ‘Cast-Lead’ five years ago – air strikes followed by a ground operation – but in this case the ground operation was far more extensive and long-lasting, because the Hamas threat was more considerable than five years ago. In particular, the threat from the Hamas tunnel network necessitated a ground operation to root out these tunnels from beginning to end, so that they could no longer be a tactical threat to southern Israel and its citizens. The military purpose of the operation was simple: remove the tunnels and degrade Hamas’ military infrastructure so it could not be an offensive threat to Israel again. That purpose has been essentially achieved. It is not in Israel’s interest to reoccupy Gaza, much less remove Hamas from power, as that would involve an indefinite, and very costly, open-ended war with unpredictable political results amongst Palestinians in Gaza.

An Israeli soldier sits in an armoured personnel carrier flying the Israeli flag.

Could you describe the effect on life which Hamas attacks on Israel has in terms of daily disruption, terror, instability, and also the economic impact?
The war has caused huge disruption to Israel, particularly in the south which has suffered most of the bombardment from Gaza over the years. Nearly 3,000 rockets were fired into israel from gaza during the month of july, raising the total to 15,000 over the past nine years since Israel disengaged from Gaza in 2005. True, the Israeli civilian death toll has been small but that is only because of the Iron Dome air defence system, which has succeeded in stopping and shooting down most of the missiles coming from Gaza.

Without the Iron Dome, Israeli civilian fatalities would probably be in the hundreds by now. The tourism industry has been hit hardest; in fact it has collapsed. Normal economic life has been severely disrupted by the constant terror, social unease, constant anxiety amongst the elderly and child population and hundreds of thousands of people having to run for shelters once or more times per day; again, particularly in the south. Because of Hamas’ improved military capability and rocket range, the centre of the country and its economic heartland, such as Tel Aviv, have also been hit which was not previously the case. It is too early to properly calculate the economic loss to Israel but the equivalent of two billion US Dollars is one estimate. Each Iron Dome counter-missile costs 50,000 US Dollars, so there has been a heavy financial cost to the Israeli military budget.

The Israeli Army. www.businessinsider.com

What is your view of the international reaction to the
situation in Gaza, and particularly the reaction in Ireland?

The media reaction internationally has been extremely disproportionate. I cannot recall any war receiving such wall to wall coverage in print, online and televisual media. particularly noteworthy is the sensationalist nature of reportage and the lack of analytical context. The Irish media, although not the worst, has been quite poor. Some of the commentary, even in newspaper editorials, has skimmed close to equating Israeli behaviour with that of Nazi Germany, and some op-ed’s or letters have ascribed Israel’s action as genocide. This is an absurd overreaction and an outrageous libel: hundreds of civilians being killed in a military operation in a built-up urban environment, however tragic, is hardly the same thing as a race of people being systematically exterminated. Israel has received a lot of support from the public in terms of letters and responses to radio interviews, but overall the tendency by media is to focus almost entirely on civilian casualties and ignore the broader context: what is Hamas, what are its aims and character, how Hamas started the war and kept it going. All too often the media here has simply referred to “militants” firing rockets from Gaza into Israel, which ignores the fact that Hamas has actually ran Gaza as a dictatorship for the last seven years.

The IDF has spoken widely of measures taken to warn
civilians of impending military action (messaging, leaflet
drops, small-arms fire on buildings they intend to shell),
but with the sizeable amount of incidents where civilians
have died during operations, does it point to the relative
failure of the effectiveness of these actions?

No, on the contrary, one needs to appreciate the context. ‘Operation Protective Edge’ was conducted on air, land and sea against Hamas, which controls a densely populated strip of 1.8 million people. Yes, the death of hundreds of civilians is tragic but the toll would have been far higher if the IDF had not taken the humanitarian steps it did to warn people to leave fire zones.

If you compare what has happened in Gaza to military operations in other urban environments in recent decades, the civilian casualty toll was much lower than in Iraq, Syria, or even in Serbia-Kosovo in 1999. Moreover, it now appears that, contrary to media reporting for the first few weeks, some 900, or half the dead, in Gaza were Hamas fighters and other fundamentalist fighters. Also, the question needs to be asked, what would Ireland and its people do if they were under constant fire from an enemy dedicated to its annihilation, what alternative would there be to a military operation?

An Israeli soldier directing a Merkava tank, at an army deployment area. www.jta.org

The IDF have suffered considerable casualties during
this operation, considering the vastly superior military
technology and training it possesses. With the fundamental
role which the ID F plays in Israeli society, what effect does the deaths of more than 60 soldiers have on the morale of the nation?

The IDF ’s casualties have certainly been heavy; 64 of some of our best young men have been killed and hundreds wounded in little more than a fortnight of ground operations. It is far higher than the casualties for ‘Operation Cast-Lead’ in December 2008- January 2009 in which ten soldiers were killed, some of them by friendly fire. This is in no way a reflection on the IDF which has become more accomplished and skilled in counter-terrorist warfare in recent years. It is reflective more of how powerful and dangerous Hamas has become over the last five years. Its small arms and rocket technology improved; its use of civilians as human shields (being more difficult to locate and target); and its greater capability in terms of rockets and booby traps.

The nation has certainly grieved at the casualties, which are the worst since the 2006 war with Hizbullah. The Israeli people, as you know, feel very close to their soldiers because it is a conscript army, a real ‘people’s’ army. The remarkable thing, however, is that despite this, the nation displayed almost unanimous support for the operation in Gaza, which is almost unprecedented – some 95% of Israeli Jews saying they support the operation right down to the ceasefire on Tuesday the 5th of August. I think this is down to two factors: a) the country just became exasperated with the constant rocket attacks over the years which ‘Operation Cast Lead’ and ‘Operation Pillar of Defence’ reduced but did not eliminate, and secondly the country, and the IDF , were shocked at the sheer amount of tunnels into Israel that were discovered as the operation progressed. We expected maybe ten, but over thirty were found. These large constructions were obviously being designed to raid southern Israel at multiple points to kidnap soldiers and civilians for use as hostages and propaganda tools; in the tunnels were not only military hardware but tranquilisers. All Israelis felt fear and a determination that this threat could not – must not – be allowed to continue.

prime minister of israel

Would Israel accept a UN peacekeeping force in the Gaza Region?
Israel would certainly desire the demilitarisation of Gaza. It has been the offensive power of Hamas, which controls Gaza since 2007, which is the root problem here. It is the presence of Hamas, its control of Gaza, its smuggling in of weapons and concrete to make offensive tunnels into Israel, and its bombardment of Israel for years, which has led to the present conflict. If Gaza was demilitarised Hamas would be in no position to threaten Israel and in turn endanger the Palestinian people in Gaza. It is too early to tell what would be the best and most feasible means of achieving this, but it is in the interests of the region, and the Palestinian people, that Hamas be permanently deprived of its offensive military capability.

ISRAEL WOULD CERTAINLY DESIRE THE DEMILITARISATION OF GAZA. IT HAS BEEN THE OFFENSIVE POWER OF HAMAS, WHICH CONTROLS GAZA SINCE 2007, WHICH IS THE ROOT PROBLEM HERE. IT IS THE PRESENCE OF HAMAS, ITS CONTROL OF GAZA, ITS SMUGGLING IN OF WEAPONS AND CONCRETE TO MAKE OFFENSIVE TUNNELS INTO ISRAEL, AND ITS BOMBARDMENT OF ISRAEL FOR YEARS, WHICH HAS LED TO THE PRESENT CONFLICT.

What is Israel’s view of the Syrian conflict, which appears to be at a relative stalemate, and what would be the most desirable outcome from an Israeli perspective?
Syria’s civil war has stalemated mainly because of increased support for Assad from Iran and Hizbullah, because last year the Assad regime looked like it was on the brink of collapse. Israel does not have a partisan view on this: if Assad survives and is strengthened it would be a strategic victory for Iran and Hizbullah, which would represent a victory for Shia Jihadism which is dedicated to destroying Israel, and presumably Hizbullah would be strengthened within Lebanon.

On the other hand, if Assad is overthrown and Syria is plunged into chaos like Libya right now, and Sunni Jihadists like ISIS (which is building a caliphate in northern Syria and northern Iraq) prosper that would be just as dangerous for Israel’s security. The best outcome for Israel would be Syria stable and at peace. Israel is also appalled at the fate of ordinary Syrians – nearly 200,000 dead and 6 million displaced. This refugee crisis is not only a moral tragedy, it exacerbates instability in the region. By the way, I do not recall any ‘human rights’ marches in Dublin about what is going on in Syria.

The Golan Heights is an area of undisputed tactical and strategic value, how does Israel feel about missions such as UNDOF in the area, and what contribution have such missions made to stability there?
Israel welcomes the UNDOF deployment, especially the troops from Ireland which is certainly doing more than its fair share, because it helps to keep stability and peace between Israel and what is going on in Syria. There have been a number of incidents where Syrian army and Syrian rebel forces have fired on Israel, but the presence of the UN acts as a deterrent to the escalation of such attacks on Israel. The brutal chaos in Syria proves that Israel is right to maintain its control of the Golan Heights – otherwise there would be a much bigger chance of the Syrian civil war spilling over into Israel proper.

airstrike israel

What is Israel’s perception of the current threat carried by Hizbullah in Lebanon, and to what extent has the Syrian conflict exacerbated the threats to Israel from within
Lebanon?

Israel is very concerned about Hizbullah. UN Resolution 1701, after the last Hizbullah-Israel conflict in 2006, was supposed to demilitarise Hizbullah and remove it as a strategic threat to Israel, and to boost the Lebanese army which was supposed to have a monopoly of military force within Lebanon. This resolution has been a total failure. Eight years on, Hizbullah are stronger than ever, with some 60,000 rockets. It is much more powerful than Hamas, and is being supplied with Iranian high-grade weaponry. Effectively, Hizbullah is Iran’s border and sword against Israel. The Lebanese army and political system is overawed and intimidated by Hizbullah, which is effectively a state within a state. The only reason Hizbullah has not attacked Israel again is probably because it is now tied down in the Syrian civil war or either it does not suit Iran right now for Hizbullah to attack Israel, because Iran is waging a charm offensive with the West so it can continue with its nuclear weaponisation programme.

Palestine’s status as a nation has been ratified by the UN General Assembly. What is the desirable solution to the Palestinian question from the Israeli perspective, if it is a two state solution, how can Israel assist this when according, to Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, the Israeli Government has refused to even put a map forward proposing Israel’s vision of its final borders? When will settlement expansions into Palestinian territory stop?
Israel opposes unilateral stunts like the Palestinian Authority wanting to be elevated to statehood, without first Israel and the Palestinians making a lasting peace based on two states for two peoples. Israel still wants a Palestinian state, but two main conditions have to be met. The Palestinians must recognise Israel as the State of the Jewish people because up to now they have refused, which implies that they do not want long-term coexistence with the state of Israel. Also, Israel’s security concerns must be accepted and addressed.

Israel and the Palestinian Authority must both compromise on the issue of borders. Israel would like to see a Palestinian state strong and democratic, peaceful, without irredentist ambitions to abolish Israel in the long run. In particular, the absurd ‘right of return’, of 5 million people worldwide who claim Palestinian ancestry, must be dropped because if that ever happened obviously Israel would cease to exist. I think the Palestinians use that card cynically as a bargaining chip in the hope of getting Israeli concessions on more practical issues. As for a map, there is no point in either side putting forth maps at this stage; as I said, the issue of borders can only be resolved through negotiation. As for settlements, it is more great propaganda by the Palestinian Authority: there have been no new Jewish settlements since 1998; expansion within existing settlements is due to normal family growth and necessary need for social infrastructure. Jewish settlements make up only 3% of West Bank territory and are not the real reason why the Palestinians use excuse-after-excuse to avoid meaningful talks. Moreover, the world seems to forget that in 2005 we evacuated from Gaza, all bases and all Jewish communities living there, some for decades, all in the interests of peace. Look what happened; two years later Hamas took over and it has been a rocket base against Israel ever since.




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