Tzachi Hanegbi, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, is a former head of the parliament’s influential Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. Hanegbi spoke with The Media Line some 35 days after Israel launched its ground invasion of the Gaza Strip, Operation Protective Edge. At the time of this interview, it is day one of a 72-hour cease fire which began with the firing of scores of rockets into Israel and of note, a long range rocket over Tel Aviv.
TML: How is Israel safer today than it was on July 8?
Hanegbi: Israel is much safer in three major dimensions. The first: the threat of the terror tunnels that we knew about for a long time. This was the first time we had an opportunity to launch a military ground operation that took care of this threat and destroyed 31 tunnels. Many of them were built in order to penetrate Israel underneath the border of Gaza and Israel and to exercise massacres in kibbutzim and villages and Israeli army bases.
The second threat that we took care of is the rockets. More than 3.500 rockets were shot at us indiscriminately at civilian populations aiming to butcher and to kill as many Israelis as they wanted to and they could. Luckily for us the Iron Dome system was tested really for the first time putting in blocking such a massive attack.
The third one is in the political arena. Hamas is not isolated; it doesn’t have support within the Arab camp, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Europe and many other countries. They don’t like to see the devastating nature of what’s happening in Gaza but they don’t support terrorism and in this sense we feel that we are prevailing in this political war.
TML: Rockets have continued to fly into Israel after cease fire after cease fire after cease fire. There are still stockpiles of rockets that are in Gaza. How do you keep the border communities safe?
Hanegbi: [Of the estimated] 10,000 rockets, 75 percent are exhausted. They were smuggled into Gaza through tunnels from Egypt or in other ways by Iran and Syria. In order to prevent the re-arming of Hamas what we have to do is make sure there is a new security mechanism supervising in whatever goes in. The Egyptians closed and destroyed more than 1,700 tunnels. They won’t be able to smuggle in concrete, cement, iron, whatever has dual use and could be used for terrorism.
TML: You said cement came through Egypt but we know it came from Israel as well; much of it for projects of Western allies. What is going to prevent this in the future?
Hanegbi: We have to be much more resolved on this. In the beginning we were explaining to our allies and friends that concrete, cement and iron are not only going to be used solely for their original purpose, that Hamas’s intention is to take a big portion of it and use it for killing Jews, killing Israelis. They were very naïve and they put pressure on us and they tried to convince us [to allow the materials into Gaza]. We were not very strong about it because we wanted Gaza to get her life back. But we are not going to make the same mistake ever again.
TML: Hamas is asking for port facilities. Is that possible?
Hanegbi: Hamas wants to be immune from any supervision, any oversight of what’s going in. Hamas wants to rebuild an Iranian stronghold and be able to attack Israel. This is not something we can accept. We will be very happy to have an airport and a seaport in Gaza once Gaza is demilitarized.
TML: Many believe the government was asleep at the switch in terms of the tunnels; that it knew about them for years. Why did it wait so long to act against them?
Hanegbi: We knew everything that we needed to know about tunnels. It was no surprise to us. As chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, I followed this threat very closely as did the Prime Minister and the Minister of Defense and members of the Israeli security cabinet. Remember that Gilad Schalit was abducted by Hamas in 2006 was thanks to their ability to penetrate beneath the border through such a tunnel and come on the back of the tank where he was stationed. The decision was to not launch an attack because there was calm since November 2012. Hamas didn’t shoot at us so we didn’t want to pre-empt an attack. This is like what we are doing in Lebanon. We know about Hezbollah’s very very effective capabilities to harm us in times of war. They have rockets, they have missiles, they have an arsenal of state-of-the-art weapons. We don’t go into Lebanon and take care of Hezbollah because we see for eight years there is deterrence and we don’t feel it’s the right thing to do to send our boys there. So we only do it in time of no other choice. When all the political options are exhausted, then we take the military measures; but it’s not something that we like to initiate.
TML: You mentioned 31 tunnels, plus many many shafts. People are speculating that there are more tunnels. Are there more tunnels?
Hanegbi: We know we destroyed 100 percent of the tunnels that we knew about, which leaves all the ones we don’t know about. Maybe they exist, maybe they don’t. It’s probably not farfetched to assume that in only 16 days we didn’t have the ability to look at every tunnel in every basement, under the carpet behind the kitchen. It was a very intensive operation. There are thousands of houses there. We worked according to the intelligence we had. It was very good intelligence but intelligence doesn’t know everything.
TML: Israeli air attacks did little if anything to diminish Hamas’ ability to fire rockets and the rockets continue after the ground invasion as well. The armor was packed up and sent home, sending the message that future response to the rockets would be a return of the air force, a tactic that didn’t prove to be all that successful. Was this the right message to send to Hamas?
Hanegbi: I think so. It’s a gradual message to send to Hamas teaching them the lesson. It takes time for them to understand that their attacks on Israel aren’t effective. We are working in a restrained way because we are aware of the sorrow and misery of the civilians there. We know that once that we are forced back in with ground forces, it’s going to harm many more civilians. So we are trying to show as much restraint and moderation as we can and let’s hope that they understand the lesson.
TML: Are you disappointed that the world community has overwhelmingly rejected Israel’s insistence that the high Palestinian casualty rate is of Hamas’ own planning and intent?
Hanegbi: It’s tragic. The facts are there and you don’t have to be too knowledgeable to understand who initiated this conflict -- who is using civilians as human shields, who has no heart and no emotion at the sight of the suffering of so many people that put their confidence in Hamas to show them a better life. This is the most vivid sign of hypocrisy. When Israel left Gaza in 2005, we expelled 10,000 Jews, many of whom were living there for decades. Our cemeteries were taken back; the bodies taken back to Israel. The synagogues, sacred places, were dismantled in order to be rebuilt in Israel: things that counties don’t usually do. We did it because we wanted to express a desire to build a new future for Gaza and for us. Since there’s no more occupation, there are no more Jewish souls there, no more soldiers there. Instead of concentrating on life, they put their energy into ruining our lives. When they made this big mistake, we hoped that the world would be totally behind us. We had our allies understanding it – Australia, the United States and Canada -- but most of the world unfortunately tried to equate Israel, a stable democratic state that wants peace; and a terror organization that is committed to the destruction of Israel. There is no equality here, there is no balance. These are the good guys; these are the bad guys. Yes, I am disappointed; I am not surprised.
TML: Palestinian Authority President Abbas says he is going to the International Criminal Court accusing Israel of war crimes. How does the foreign ministry respond to this?
Hanegbi: We will of course fight back. We don’t believe that they have the legitimacy to go to the criminal court. The Palestinians are the ones who criminally attacked Israel for 66 years. They are responsible for the death of every child and every woman and every man in Gaza. This is a decision they made in order to put Israel before the court. Hamas are war criminals in two dimensions: shooting at Israeli civilians indiscriminately and using civilians as human shields. I’m sure this will backfire against the PA.
TML: The Prime Minister said Israel will not negotiate under fire but semantics aside, that is exactly what he’s done. Apparently plans are in the works for easing border restrictions for Palestinians, possibly even a sea corridor courtesy of the Europeans… Regardless of what the concessions are in their final form, how will it be possible to deny that terror works and that Hamas secured improvements for the Palestinian people through “armed resistance” – terror?
Hanegbi: Well, I think it’s the other way around. We don’t speak to Hamas. We were ready to speak to the Egyptians, but once they started shooting, the Israeli delegation came back home until they stopped shooting we didn’t go back to Cairo. Now, they understand they lost many days and they lost lives because the rockets that they shot in the last three days didn’t really harm us. No one got hurt and got killed but many terrorists paid for this new provocation and we were very moderate in our response because we wanted not to increase the already difficult times for the people in Gaza. But I think 20 terrorists paid with their lives for this new ridiculous provocation. We are very very strong in our position that Gaza must be demilitarized and we are going to fight for it without concessions.
TML: Defense Minister Ya’alon says Hamas is holding the bodies of two soldiers. Will Israel refuse to exchange prisoners for its dead soldiers?
Hanegbi: What is happening after a war is that you exchange bodies for bodies and prisoners for prisoners. They don’t have any Israeli prisoners. They have two bodies. We have eight bodies and 25 prisoners that we arrested throughout the operation. We are ready to give those people back and to get the bodies of our soldier back. We don’t have a very good experience with Hamas in this sense. They tend to fantasize and have ridiculous thoughts about Israel’s readiness to give up so we have to look forward to them being a little more sensible.
TML: During the month of fighting, an amazing percentage of the population supported the government’s decisions and urged that the fight continue until the end so the country would have to do this again in two years. Without seeing numbers I’d say it’s a safe bet that most Israelis feel the job isn’t done. How much of this is because of international pressure – American in particular?
Hanegbi: I don’t think it has anything to do with pressure, American or European. The government decision at the beginning of the conflict was very focused and limited. We didn’t commit to going all the way into Gaza and to uproot the terror organization and to kill all the terrorists or to make Hamas go away. This was probably a legitimate goal for several cabinet ministers but the majority felt that this is not the right approach this time. And the public as you said supports the government. Maybe some of them would like Israel to go all the way in, but they understand that there is a price. And we don’t want to pay the price of our young children. We are not cherishing death like our enemies, we cherish life. And if we can achieve the same goals in a political way, we’d rather try at least to see whether it’s possible. If it is not going to be possible; if the provocation will stay as it is; if shooting will stay the way it is; I’m sure these decisions will be made.
TML: Khaled Mashaal controls a lot of what happens, probably all of what happens in Gaza from afar, in Qatar. Is there concern about where he is heading in if another organization like ISIS comes in?
Hanegbi: There’s not much difference between ISIS and Hamas. They are the same branches of the Muslim Brotherhood. They vary in issues of religion but they are not varied in their commitment to destroy the state of Israel, to kill every Jew. The Hamas charter describes how a tree should shout “there’s a Jew behind me” and call for the Muslims, the Jihad people, to come and kill every Israeli that is hiding behind this tree -- crazy fundamentalist zealot ideas that are similar to ISIS. This is not really something where the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know. We know those devils. They are the same.
TML: Thank you very much, Tzachi Hanegbi, deputy foreign minister.