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An Israeli army mobile artillery piece fires towards targets in the southern Gaza Strip, on the Israel side of the border with Gaza Sunday, Jan. 4, 2009.
Israel's offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip has killed more than 1,000 peopleImage: AP

Calming the Mideast

Interview: Diana Fong
January 15, 2009

DW-WORLD.DE spoke to Israel's former ambassador to Germany, Avi Primor, about the reasons for the Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip and how the EU can help bring about peace between the Jews and Palestinians.


Avi Primor, who was Israel's ambassador to Germany from 1993 to 1999, is head of the Center for European Studies in Herzliya.

DW-WORLD.DE: The numbers speak for themselves in Gaza. Over 1,000 casualties on the Palestinian side: Civilians and children killed or maimed by Israeli fire, whereas Hamas' hand-made rockets have killed only a handful of soldiers in Israel. This lopsided war is damaging to Israel's international reputation and drawing bad blood among young Palestinians. Why has Israel's response been so "disproportionate"?

Avi Primor: I agree with your assumptions, but we didn't have a choice. We're trying to fight a terrorist organization, which claims its aim is to destroy the state of Israel. We had a ceasefire agreement last year and on the 19th of December, Hamas unilaterally declared the end of it and started bombarding our towns with as many as 80 rockets a day.

Look at it like this: you live in a town in which an alarm goes off every five minutes, you keep hearing rockets exploding and you can't have a normal life. Even if you are not directly hit, you live in fear and you don't see any reason to be fired at.

I agree that the casualties are far higher on the Palestinian side, but that is because Hamas first of all, hides behind the civilian population, using people as a human shield. Secondly, our fire power is much stronger than theirs. In war, you use all the means at your disposal to enforce a ceasefire. It's a horrible tragedy, but this is not a circus game in which you have to use the same amount of power as the other side.

Former Israeli ambassador to Germany Avi Primor
Avi PrimorImage: picture-alliance/dpa

And Hamas knows all that. The Egyptians kept telling them, "We told you to stop provoking Israel. Because when Israel hits back with all its firepower, it's not going to be in your favor".

Keep in mind: Israel didn't react for a whole week, hoping to restore the ceasefire, but that didn't work. In the meantime, the Israelis living in those towns and villages that were bombarded, demanded that the government to do something.

Our aim is not a re-conquest of the Gaza Strip, not even the destruction of Hamas. We just want to impose a viable ceasefire.

Hamas argues that it terminated the ceasefire because Israel didn't keep to its end of the deal by lifting the blockade that was a part of the agreement …

Israel lifted the blockade partially. But every once in a while when we opened the Gaza-Israeli border and let trucks go by, Hamas would shoot at the passengers. Why? Because their real interest is to let the civilian population suffer. Then the bad blood the Palestinians have against the Israelis rises, so the population supports the one and only fighter against the Israeli enemy, which is Hamas.

Besides when Hamas speaks about the blockade they don't mean just Israel, but the border with Egypt too. The Egyptians fear the fundamentalists even more than we do, so they've closed their border with Gaza.

We are not against lifting the blockade, but we want to be sure that once we do so, it will be for transporting civilian supplies and not for rearmament. We will not allow the passage of Iranian weapons assistance and possibly more modern rockets with greater firing range.

Why don't you just bomb the underground tunnels that transport weapons instead of resorting to air strikes at the civilian population then?

Our targets are the tunnels, the militants, the factories that produce arms, not the civilian population, but we cannot avoid mistakes in war.

There are Middle East experts who say that Hamas is not all out to destroy Israel even though that's what their charter says. It's just rhetoric and that it is possible to engage Hamas in reinforcing the ceasefire. Do you agree?

I partially agree. We've already talked to Hamas using Egyptian mediation to evacuate Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip peacefully. You can negotiate with Hamas when there is a common interest involved.

My suggestion is to let the Palestinian government in Ramallah (led by the moderate President Mahmoud Abbas on the West Bank) come to terms with the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip to create a federation in which Hamas would empower Ramallah to negotiate with Israel in the name of all Palestinians.

Palestine and Israel flags, partial graphic
A two-state solution is the only solution, says PrimorImage: AP

Are you suggesting a two-state solution?

It's the only solution. We have to end all occupation and evacuate the West Bank colonies, but we don't want a repeat of Gaza. When we did evacuate the settlements and pull our troops out, what we got were rocket attacks. So if we sign a peace agreement with the Ramallah government and this is perfectly possible, then we need somebody who could guarantee the security of Israel.

Who would that be?

I see the Europeans doing that. The EU would not just be helpful, but essential. I don't see the Americans doing that.

Why not?

The vast majority of American public opinion supports Israel blindly and has a hatred of Palestinians, who are viewed as part of world Arab fanaticism.

But there's a new US administration coming in next week…

Maybe, but public opinion won't change. What could happen is that (President-elect Barack) Obama would actively support a European initiative. The EU needs to give Israel security guarantees after the pull out of Israeli occupational forces from the West Bank. That means the Europeans should send in an international army to replace the Israelis and impose a security force in cooperation with the Palestinians. That does not mean the troops all have to be European. I would recommend Turkish troops, who are Muslim and others too. It is essential to have first and foremost the political will, then the financial support behind such a mission.

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