Israel Aims to Curb Rocket Fire, Weapons Smuggling in Gaza

PBS Transcript – Originally Aired: December 31, 2008

RAY SUAREZ: Now to the Gaza crisis, entering its sixth day with no immediate end in sight. Israel’s government has rejected a cease-fire proposal. Its tanks are massing on the border. And air attacks continue on Hamas targets.

Among those targets are a number of tunnels running underneath the Gaza frontier with Egypt. Palestinians move tons of goods and gallons of fuel into Gaza from Egypt to counter restrictions imposed by Israel. These elaborate hand-dug tunnels have lights, winches, and communication systems. The Israeli government says Hamas is using these tunnels to bring weapons into Gaza.

For more on decisions being made by the Israelis, we go to General Michael Herzog, the chief of staff for Defense Minister Ehud Barak. I talked with him earlier this evening.

General, welcome to the program. Why did your government ultimately reject the calls for the truce?

GEN. MICHAEL HERZOG, Israeli Defense Official: If we’re going to talk about the truce or a cease-fire, we want to make sure that this is a sustainable one. We do not want to go back to a situation where our towns, and villages, and our citizens are being fired daily.

And the purpose of this campaign is to bring Hamas to cease the firing and any other hostile activities against Israel.

Now, we feel that right now Hamas is still not where we want it to be, namely still not willing to accept a sustainable cease-fire under our terms.

And it also referred to a humanitarian cease-fire, and we don’t think that there is a humanitarian crisis in Gaza. While we are fighting Hamas, we are allowing all necessary humanitarian supplies to go into Gaza, hundreds of trucks.

So we felt this was too early. We feel that this might help Hamas and not us. And we are continuing our pressure on Hamas.

Ground option is ‘complex’

RAY SUAREZ: Does Israel believe that it can ultimately cripple Hamas’ capacity to fire into Israel using air power alone?

GEN. MICHAEL HERZOG: Well, we’re not sure. What we’re trying to do is, first of all, to change the intolerable situation which existed along the border between us and Gaza for the last few years since we left Gaza.

We want to deter Hamas from the continuation of firing and other hostile activities. If we’re capable of doing so through air strikes, then that’s good. If not, then we might consider other options, including a ground option. We’re not rushing there, but we’re not deterred from it.

RAY SUAREZ: What risks does the ground option, as you call it, hold for Israel?

GEN. MICHAEL HERZOG: Well, ground option is a complex one. We’re talking about a densely populated area in the Gaza Strip, but militarily we’re, of course, much stronger than Hamas, but we realize that this is a high-friction conflict if you go there with boots on the ground.

But, as I said, we are ready to do what it takes to bring Hamas to stop the firing of rockets on citizens, on our civilians. If we can do it through pinpointed air strikes, then so be it. If not, we’re not deterred from further actions on the ground.
Hamas ‘highly unpopular’ in Gaza

RAY SUAREZ: If Hamas survives this Israeli attack, does Israel run the risk of leaving a Hamas stronger than it was before this latest military action? Because Hamas was enjoying less and less popularity inside Gaza because of its inability to deliver public services.

GEN. MICHAEL HERZOG: Well, first of all, I think Hamas is highly unpopular in Gaza. What we hear from Gaza is that people who are, of course, they’re in an unpleasant situation because it’s a war zone. At the very same time, people are actually encouraging us to hit Hamas.

Now, you ask, what if Hamas survives this? Our aim is not to crush Hamas. It’s not to topple the Hamas regime. This is not the aim set forward by the cabinet to the IDF.

The aim, as I said, is to change the equation, to create deterrence, so that they will stop firing for as long as possible.

Now, if we are managing to do that through our military campaign, then, of course, we have achieved our goals. If not, nobody can rule out that some time in the future, whether it be a larger showdown with Hamas, as I said, we’re not rushing there.

The aim for this operation is not to topple the Hamas regime, but rather to stop the firing and other hostile activities on our civilians.

Targeting tunnels involves Egypt

RAY SUAREZ: There are rockets launched in Gaza that are now landing as deep into Israel as Beersheba, which is, as I understand, further than ever before. Does it represent a significantly increased capacity on the part of Hamas to fire into Israel?

GEN. MICHAEL HERZOG: Yes, they have increased the range of their rockets. They hit Beersheba, which is about 27 miles from the Gaza border with Israel. We have expected that, doesn’t come as a surprise to us. And this is a result of ongoing smuggling into Gaza through the Egyptian border, by the way, while we had a cease-fire.

These Grad rockets, which are a type of Katyusha rocket, being fired on Beersheba and other towns deeper into Israel, they’re not manufactured in Gaza. They’ve been smuggled through the border.

And one of the purposes of this operation is also to change the situation along the Gaza-Egypt border so that the smuggling there will stop.

RAY SUAREZ: And do you risk bringing Egypt into the conflict? Do you have to be very careful if you target those tunnels?

GEN. MICHAEL HERZOG: Well, we target the tunnels on the Palestinian side of the border. We give the Egyptians due notice. And we do not want to bring the Egyptians into this conflict.

The Egyptians have played a positive role in the tadia, the lull, the cease-fire that we had with Gaza over the last six months. And we expect that they will be an important player in this in the future. After all, they control the Egyptian side of the border with Gaza. They control the Rafah passage. And I don’t see any future arrangement without any kind of Egyptian involvement.

Smuggling is great concern

RAY SUAREZ: Now, you mentioned that tunnels are being used as a conduit for weapons, but weren’t they also a pressure valve for Gaza, making it possible to bring in the goods of everyday life and easing the suffering of the Gazans who are right now under widespread blockade and have been for some time?

GEN. MICHAEL HERZOG: Well, what we did is, the passages between Israel and Gaza were open for humanitarian necessities. Everything that they needed we allowed to go in.

We do not have it normally open between Israel in hostile entity firing rockets on us every day. That’s clear. I think that’s natural.

There is an ongoing smuggling industry between Egypt and the Gaza Strip. It contains a lot of weapons, weapon systems, those rockets that I mentioned earlier, and, of course, other daily necessities.

It’s an industry. It’s regulated and run by Hamas today. And they even publicize it to show the population that they are fighting the Israeli siege and pressure.

But, of course, what we are concerned about is the smuggling of weapons. Last year, we were threatened by rockets with a range of three to five miles. Now it’s 27 miles. Next year, it could reach deeper into Israel, as deep as Tel Aviv. This is not something that we’re ready to live with.

RAY SUAREZ: General Michael Herzog, thanks for joining us.

GEN. MICHAEL HERZOG: Thank you very much.