FM Tzipi Livni briefed the foreign ambassadors on the escalation of Hamas attacks on southern Israel and Israel’s operations in Gaza.
Briefing by Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Tzipi Livni to the Diplomatic Corps
Jerusalem, March 3, 2008
FM LIVNI: Welcome. I know that some of you may be hearing something from the other side in a similar meeting with the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. It’s a pity that I use the words "the other side" because I believe that Israel and the legitimate Palestinian government in Ramallah are on the same side. So I believe that what I will share with you today represents the interests of Israel as well as Palestinian society, moderate Palestinians, and the international community. We are trying to share the situation with you because I believe that there is a role of the international community, and we need to understand where we are all headed.
As you know, the Israeli army is conducting an ongoing operation. Israel is under attack. I think that in our previous meeting in Erez, near the Gaza Strip, we were talking about the fact that the range of the missiles is now longer and more cities are under the threat of rockets coming from the Gaza Strip. And now, unfortunately, reality demonstrates that it’s not only a matter of smuggling weapons into the Gaza Strip but that they use them, of course, like always, against civilians, and this is something that we cannot afford.
Israel needs to act against this kind of terrorism. As to our goals, I believe, of course, that as a responsible government we need to give an answer and defend our own citizens. We cannot live in a situation in which Israel is under daily attack. I know that sometimes there are those who use the term "collective punishment.” Believe me, there is now collective punishment suffered by the citizens of Ashkelon and the citizens of Sderot, and Israel cannot live with this. It’s not going to become a habit in Israel or something that we are going to get used to. We are not getting used to it, we’ll not get used to it, and this is something which is unacceptable to any government in the world. So basically we need to address it. We need to give an answer to Israeli citizens. We need to give them security and hope and a decent and normal life in these places.
Of course, the goal is to weaken Hamas militarily and politically, and we are doing this simultaneously. I mean, we need to attack when they try to attack us. We need to use all the information we have in order to attack the infrastructure of terror. We have to attack the places in which they manufacture the rockets. We need to attack the terrorists themselves. We also need to address the buildup of Hamas and the fact that the Philadelphi Corridor is being used in order to smuggle weapons. As you saw, the weapons which are being smuggled through the Philadelphi Corridor have become more and more problematic. As you can see, we are talking in terms of a terrorist organization, but we are actually dealing with a small army, a small militia, in the Gaza Strip.
Of course, politically there is a need to undermine Hamas because of the dual strategy that the world, Israel and the pragmatic Palestinians decided to adopt a few months ago, and I will refer to it because it is also connected to the peace process. Basically, Hamas has controlled Gaza since the elections in the Palestinian Authority, but just a few months ago, Hamas took Gaza in what Abu Mazen called a “coup", and they control it. They control Gaza, they have this army, and this is the situation in Gaza. In the West Bank we have another government, which is supported by the international community and Israel as well, which is a legitimate government because it accepts the parameters of the international community to get legitimacy. I refer to the parameters of the Quartet requirements. They represent the national aspirations of the Palestinians to live in a state of their own, in peace and security, I hope, with Israel. We have a conflict with them, but we also have a mutual interest. We see this as a mutual interest to live in peace and security in two different states, two different homelands for two different peoples.
Now, the complicated situation is that, on one hand, we have the legitimate government which cannot control the entire future territory of the Palestinian state. The Palestinians are talking about their state, which includes the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and we fully support this idea of a Palestinian state. But, clearly, according to the Annapolis understanding, any implementation of the understanding of the peace treaty is subject to the implementation of the Roadmap.
The idea is that, before the creation of the state, we need to address the situation on the ground. We need to have an effective government, a government which can control – really control – all this terror coming from its territories. As we said before, we cannot afford a terrorist state, a failed state, like in Lebanon – because we have this past experience with a government that cannot control its territory, with an armed militia in its territory. Of course, we cannot afford this kind of extreme Islamic state controlled by Hamas, which is not only a terrorist organization, which represents this extreme Islamic ideology, Islamic resistance, without any connection to relations with Israel, without any connection to the fact that Israel left the Gaza Strip – by the way, not in order to come back, but we may find ourselves in a situation that we have no other alternative.
We decided to have this dual strategy – on the one hand to work with the pragmatic leaders, to support the moderates, and on the other hand to delegitimize Hamas as a terrorist organization, to work against terror – and to do it simultaneously because it cannot succeed by executing only one of these two different pillars of the same strategy. It’s not enough to work with the moderates.
When it comes to the pragmatics and to the extremists, to Hamas and Fatah, to Abu Mazen and Haniyeh, it’s a zero-sum game. The idea in working with the pragmatic leaders is to create a genuine alternative to Hamas, a genuine political alternative, and it is a zero-sum game. When Hamas gets stronger, it means that Abu Mazen and Salam Fayyad are getting less and less support; and when Hamas fails, it means that the others can get the support.
Clearly, it’s not only the Israeli strategy. It’s not only the strategy of the Palestinians themselves and, of course, Abu Mazen. This was and is the strategy of the international community, and this strategy is the basis of the Annapolis understanding. We decided to go to Annapolis to work with the pragmatic leaders, to start this peace process with an understanding that we are doing so even though we are going to face terror attacks on Israel and even though Israel needs to provide an answer to these terror attacks.
It is crucial to understand that we decided to do so simultaneously because we believe that there is a need to continue and promote the peace process. We could have waited on the first phase of the Roadmap forever, waiting for the Palestinians to give an answer and to act against terrorism, but we decided to promote the peace process. On the other hand, there is an understanding that when the situation on the ground is difficult, there will be some temptation on both sides to stop the negotiations.
I said clearly in Annapolis, as I said in Paris, that the success of this peace process depends on the determination of the leaders of both sides not to let the goings-on outside of the negotiating room enter the negotiating room. And I didn’t only say so; I acted accordingly. I met with Abu Ala the same day there was a suicide bombing in an Israeli mall in the Negev, in Dimona, in which one Israeli was killed. Some members of the government coalition called on me to stop the negotiations because it’s not wise or it doesn’t represent the interests of Israel to continue negotiations under terror. And last week I had two meetings with Abu Ala – one on Wednesday, the same time when I received the information that an Israeli was killed at the Sapir College campus near Sderot. And the next day we had another meeting, on the day of the funeral. I answered a no-confidence vote in the Israeli parliament for continuing the negotiations, and I said clearly that we are going to continue the negotiations because otherwise we give Hamas the keys and control of the peace treaty because if they know that by using terror they win the cessation of the negotiations, this would only give them a good reason to continue terrorism.
We knew this in advance and we decided to enter the negotiating room because it is more important, and because only by doing it simultaneously can we give hope for the people. In so doing, we can create a genuine alternative to Hamas and undermine Hamas at the same time. I also believe that the international community supported this process. Of course, it is the legitimate right of Israel to defend its citizens, but I think that most of the representatives of the international community and the international leaders are more willing, if I may say so, to support Israel in its fight against terrorism knowing that simultaneously we are continuing with the peace process.
This was the deal. This was the understanding of Annapolis. And stopping the negotiations is against the Annapolis understanding. I think that cessation of negotiations is a mistake. I think that it shows weakness, of course, but I think that it shows Hamas that by using terror they can control, from Gaza, the acts of the legitimate government and Abu Mazen in Ramallah, and more. I am not here to blame others. I am trying to explain to you what the strategy is and what is also needed from the international community, and I will come to that later. And what I say here to you I said to Abu Ala as well.
So, clearly, I don’t expect Abu Ala and Abu Mazen to support Israel’s acts. I am not trying to push my luck. I really understand the sensitivity. But I also understand that when depicting Israeli attacks, Al Jazeera abuses the situation on the ground by telling lies. Unfortunately, during these attacks, civilians were killed. I am not trying to change facts. But, of course, when it comes to Al Jazeera, everything is exaggerated.
So I know that it’s not easy for my partners to continue the negotiations. No, it’s not easy, but I expect them to do so. I expect them to do so because the easiest thing on earth is to quit. And it’s not only the cessation of the negotiations. The statements referring to Israel as Nazis, describing events in terms of the Holocaust and all this, sends a message to the wrong people, which is against the concept and the idea of the peace process.
I know that they cannot control the Gaza Strip; I know that. I don’t expect them to control the Gaza Strip, I don’t expect them to change the situation in the Gaza Strip, unfortunately, but this is the reality, and we decided to live with this reality. We decided to work with them on the peace process and not to ask them to assume responsibility when it comes to terror from the Gaza Strip, even though this is also part of the Palestinian territory. Abu Mazen is also the president of the Palestinians in Gaza, not only when it comes to calls against Israel but also regarding the situation there. But we accepted the fact that they are too weak to control the situation.
But there is only one choice, and in saying these things about Israel, the results are the demonstrations not in the Gaza Strip but in the West Bank. It doesn’t help them. It’s going to undermine their own position, it’s going to lead people to be more extremist, and basically it’s against the whole concept of division and distinction between the moderates and the extremists.
Now, we are willing and we will continue to work according to the Annapolis understanding. We are bound to it, we believe in it and we are willing to continue. And, as I had a phone call from Abu Ala saying that he cannot come to our next meeting, the moment he calls me, believe me, I will cancel all the other things on my agenda and go to the negotiating room. But here comes the role of the international community, and this is no less important. I know that the international community is eager to see results. I know that sometimes there is frustration because of the situation on the ground. And, believe me, we are more frustrated. I know that also in the West Bank there are some mutual demands on Israel from the Palestinians, on Palestinians from Israel, and sometimes it’s not according to the book. But there is one thing that needs to be clear: Nobody wants Hamas to succeed. Excuse me, there are some who want Hamas to succeed: Iran, Syria and Hizbullah. Success is not only a matter of reality; it’s a matter of perception.
If you recall, after the war in Lebanon, when it comes to the situation on the ground, even though Hizbullah had this loss during the war, when Nasrallah presented it, the perception and the image were one of victory. And nobody can afford a Hamas victory. The first one who cannot afford a Hamas victory – a spin-off Hamas victory as they had today, or a perception or image of victory – is Abu Mazen. The second is Israel. And the third is our Arab and Muslim neighbors. Egypt cannot afford it because they don’t want to see a Muslim Brotherhood victory in Egypt. The Jordanians cannot afford it. Nobody can afford it.
Now, I know that when it comes to images, everybody wants to see tranquility and peace, and even though everybody knows that Hamas controls the Gaza Strip, there is this need within the Arab world, and I can understand it, to see the situation become more calm and without these kinds of casualties on the Palestinian side. I can understand it. But, on the other hand, we need to take our steps because nobody, neither the legitimate Palestinian government nor the international community, has an answer for Israeli citizens or an idea of how to change the situation in the Gaza Strip in order to make Gaza a reality as part of the future Palestinian state. And it’s not only a matter of the number of Kassam rockets or GRAD rockets or others targeting Israel today. We’re talking about the smuggling of weapons, the buildup.
Let’s assume that we reach a peace treaty. I hope so; this is what I’m devoted to. How can Abu Mazen and the others control the Gaza Strip in the future without internal fighting? They cannot. So, to turn a blind eye to the situation in Gaza is something we cannot afford – and "we" is Israel, "we" is Abu Mazen and the others, and "we" is the international community.
Now, in the perception of a victory, Hamas uses the sensitivity of the international community and the Arab world to human loss and civilian casualties, and we are sensitive to them as well. We are trying to avoid these kind of casualties, but please don’t send condolences to both sides. It’s a terrible loss for a mother when a child dies during a terror attack or an Israeli attack. For the families, it’s the same horrible pain and grief. But it’s not the same when it comes to the moral judgment. It’s not a matter of suffering; it’s a matter of taking the right stand. And while the terrorists are targeting Israeli civilians directly, deliberately, without a real cause, the Israeli soldiers are trying to target specifically the places from which we are being attacked. And during these operations, civilians are also paying the price. But it’s like in your own neighborhoods. Just imagine a situation on your street, in your backyard, in your neighbor’s backyard, where somebody launches rockets. It’s not normal. I’m sure that you would say that you are not willing to accept it. And if you have children you would say, “Not in my neighborhood; I’m not going to put my children at risk.”
They really don’t care. We care. But we also care for the lives of our citizens. And another thing: now we are also being blamed by some of the Israeli citizens because we have the power, we have jets and airplanes, we can target cities, towns and neighborhoods. But we send our soldiers to check hour after hour after hour, and some of them are being killed because we are trying to prevent and avoid civilian casualties.
So excuse me for saying so, but speaking about the cycle of violence and that both sides need to stop the violence, and sending condolences to both sides – excuse me, but it’s not the right thing according to the Annapolis understanding, and according to our goals and challenges for the future. Because Hamas takes this as the understanding by the international community that their terrorists are on the same stage as those who are trying to act against terrorism. It’s like the comparison between a murderer and somebody who killed somebody by mistake. According to your own legal systems, there is no moral equation between these two.
So please, not for Israel’s sake but for the sake of the region, act against terrorism by saying that there is no just cause for terrorism, that terror is terror is terror, that Israel has the right to defend itself, and that those who are in charge of the civilians in the Gaza Strip are responsible for the situation in Gaza. And while we are talking and while we are fighting against terrorism, most of the crossings are open for the humanitarian needs of the Palestinian population. In doing so, you will also support the pragmatic leaders in the Palestinian Authority. They don’t have an answer to the situation in Gaza. They understand our need to do so but they are not strong enough to stand up to their own public opinion and say so. It serves the interest of Egypt, who understands now that the problems in the Philadelphi Corridor are neither an Israeli problem nor a Palestinian one but an Egyptian one.
I know that there are some who talk in terms of the cessation of violence, and basically in the past I used to say that, well, it depends on Hamas. The moment they stop firing rockets, we will not need to answer. But I want to say something slightly different today. They are not going to be the ones who decide when to start targeting Israel and when to stop. We are going to change the rules of this game. We are not going to play according to their rules; we are not willing to accept this equation any more, and we are not going to be in a position in which, when Israel takes out its forces, they say: oh, it’s a victory for Hamas – let’s continue targeting Israel. We will continue in different operations, one way or another, in order to meet all these challenges until they understand that cessation of violence is not something that they can decide for a day or for a few hours but something which relates also to Israel’s need to ensure the security of its citizens and also to prevent any kind of a buildup of forces through the Philadelphi Corridor.
ITALIAN AMBASSADOR: Thank you. You stated that your strategy has a goal of weakening Hamas both militarily –
FM LIVNI: And politically.
ITALIAN AMBASSADOR: – that’s a reason to think that what you’ll be doing in the next days will weaken Hamas politically.
FM LIVNI: I said that there are three parameters in any kind of decision as a decision maker. The first is to give security to our citizens. And when Israel is under attack, we need to react – not to punish Hamas but to stop it. Then we need to weaken Hamas militarily, and yes, it helps. The political effect is more in the long run, which is why we wanted simultaneously to continue the peace process in order to create another option and alternative for the Palestinian people.
Now, I know that sometimes in the past we could see some reduction in numbers of Hamas supporters, but I also know and understand that sometimes when a group is under attack from the outside, they unfortunately all gather in support of their leaders. But at the end of the day, this is a dual strategy that can succeed not only in terms of days but in general, in working with the pragmatic leaders and undermining the others.
I think that, in the last few months, the points on which Hamas has gotten the support of the people were when they succeeded in doing something against the interest of the others. For example, the day they opened Rafah and the Philadelphi Corridor and broke the wall. This was the day they got the support of the people. And they will get the support of the people the moment Israel stops, the moment the international community calls for cessation of violence by both sides, the moment the international community gives them legitimacy, one way or another. They want to control the Gaza Strip, and the problem is not only the Gaza Strip but also how it can affect the situation in the West Bank.
But I can assure you that, as a decision maker – and it is more complicated than that because there are some decisions that can help when it comes to the first parameter but maybe don’t help when it comes to the others. I know this, believe me. But basically these are the parameters according to which we are working.
SOUTH AFRICAN AMBASSADOR: Minister, I think we all understand that Israel has the right to defend its citizens. But a problem which some of us are grappling with is when it is said, “Yes, we have a right.” But what about the issues of proportionality and collective punishment?
FM LIVNI: Okay. I think that Israel is the only state in the world in which its Minister of Defense has today, during a time of almost war, met with the Attorney General, the Minster of Justice, and Foreign Ministry experts on international law, in order to speak about and understand the terms of proportionality in accordance with how the IDF works and will continue to work on the ground. So, basically, it is not something that can be judged. I hope that the international community knows that we are trying to avoid civilian casualties, and that what is called "collective punishment" goes against our values and our system. But, as I said before, we are undergoing our own collective punishment. Ashkelon is under collective punishment by terror.
Now, it comes down to different examples. We can discuss them. The situation in which you have a family living in a factory where I know there are rockets that can kill Israelis – is this proportionate action? I think that it is proportionate. But these are the decisions that the Israeli Chief of Staff needs to decide on a daily basis.
More than that, we decided to avoid civilian casualties by sending a warning message to a place from which we knew the terrorists act. They, on the other hand, called on civilians to live there because we were going to attack. We prefer to attack an empty building which is being used to manufacture rockets, even taking into consideration that the terrorists will leave the place. So you know what happened. All the children gathered on the roof. Since they know that the strike usually comes from the air, they send the children to the roof to prevent us from targeting that building.
So, yes, I believe that what we are doing is proportionate but I don’t know how you can measure proportionality when you are in this kind of situation. In a way, a war against terrorism is unfair because, on one side, there are these terrorists. Believe me, proportionality is something that isn’t part of their vocabulary, and international law is not part of their vocabulary and the Geneva Convention is not part of their vocabulary. We are working with our hands tied because of all these rules, and because we are part of the free world, and because this is part of our values as well. But accidents can happen and civilians are also being killed by Israeli operations. I am not going to ignore it but I hope that there is a better understanding of what we are trying to avoid.
CZECH REPUBLIC AMBASSADOR: Minister, you said very emphatically that you are going to change the rules of the game. Could you elaborate on what kind of steps Israel is intending to take?
FM LIVNI: I am trying to avoid the kind of situation in which Israeli ministers are interviewed on television talking about this or that operation. I shared with you the parameters for any operation. But, for example, as I said before, in the past they lived according to that assumption they target Israel, Israel reacts and then Israel stops, and then they decide when to target Israel again. What I said was that we will decide when we stop the operation. And these are different operations in different times. I don’t want to mislead anybody. The fact that the Israeli soldiers left the northern part of the Gaza Strip was not the end of what we are going to do in the Gaza Strip. It was because their role there was over and the mission completed. But we are going to continue, and we will stop the moment we understand that Hamas also understands that they are not going to use cessation or the end of operations from the Israeli side to wait for the next time they target Israel. So it’s not mathematics at the end of the day. But you know something? I think that all Hamas members understand what I was speaking about when I said that we are changing the equation because they know what the equation was, and they changed it by targeting Ashkelon as they did.
SLOVENIAN AMBASSADOR: Minister, under these circumstances, do you think that the government will be prepared to enter into some negotiations with Hamas to achieve a ceasefire, to find a peaceful solution?
FM LIVNI: Talking about negotiations, it depends with whom. As I said before, with Abu Ala, Abu Mazen and the legitimate government, I’m willing to continue the negotiations simultaneously. You also need to understand that the moment Israel negotiates with Hamas, the moment I enter the room with Hamas members to negotiate any kind of treaty, it means killing the other channel. And in the Palestinian streets, maybe this also means really killing somebody there.
But the idea is that terror cannot bring political gains, and it is the others who can bring the Palestinians political gains. We live in a world in which, as I said before, images and perceptions mean something, and if they sense anything they perceive as weakness, even though Israel is not weak, it will be used. Hamas doesn’t represent the national aspirations of the Palestinians. According to their own ideology, I don’t have the right to live as a human being. Basically, Israel doesn’t have the right to exist. So, when talking about these kinds of negotiations, this ideology is not an option.
In the past, sometimes there was a kind of an understanding, not an agreement, a kind of understanding that they don’t attack; we don’t attack. When I said that, as a decision maker, we will take all these parameters into consideration, this refers to military decisions and to other decisions. In doing so, we also need to ask ourselves the question of timing and the position in time – where Israel is and where Hamas is. At a particular time, Hamas may be asking for a time-out, but they also want something which is not exactly a real ceasefire. Maybe they want this time in order to build up and get more weapons. So there is also a need to address the situation in the Philadelphi Corridor. We also take the situation on the ground into consideration when it comes to Israel and Hamas, also in terms of how Israel assesses the military situation and the security situation.
So, as I said before, I cannot refer to exact military operations or say something about the cessation of violence. I can just say that these are the parameters that we will work according to in any kind of decision. I think that just giving them some time to get more weapons is against regional interests and international interests. Giving them the feeling of success just to gain a few days is also against regional interests. We need to take all these parameters into consideration and, of course, the other track as well.