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A cease-fire between Hamas and Israel is reportedly in the works amidst a humanitarian crisis in Gaza and growing international pressure. But a top Israeli official tells DW that "a cease-fire in itself is not an aim."
Israel's foreign ministry advisor Michael Freeman spoke to Conflict Zone amid mounting public pressure the world over for a cessation of hostilities in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Speaking from Jerusalem, Freeman said the goal is a sustainable period of calm so "we will have a long period without any conflict. That's in the interest of both Israelis and Palestinians." He underlined that the goal of Israel’s operation in Gaza was to make "Hamas understand that attacking Israel is not worth their while."
After nearly two weeks of clashes between Gaza and Israel and more than 200 Palestinian and a dozen Israeli casualties, the international community, stepped up pressure on both sides to stop the military escalation. Israel initially showed no interest in halting airstrikes on Gaza. "Every time we've had a cease-fire, the cease-fire has only ever lasted 24, 48 hours, a week or two weeks," Freeman said.
The government advisor said that after Hamas fired rockets against Israeli cities including the capital, Jerusalem, on May 10, "Operation Guardian of the Walls" was a legitimate act of self-defense on the part of Israel: "We are doing what we need to do to defend our civilians." Freeman said Israel took every effort to avoid unnecessary casualties.
"Every civilian casualty, every loss of innocent life is a tragedy. We need to do everything we can to try and avoid those civilian casualties … And that's what we're doing and that's what we will continue to do," he said.
United Nations humanitarian officials say hundreds of civilian facilities in Gaza, including six hospitals and primary-care health centers, have been destroyed or damaged. The UN says more than 58,000 Palestinians have been displaced by the attacks. Hundreds of thousands more have been affected by insufficient fuel supplies and by the damage caused to vital infrastructure in Gaza, including access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene services.
Confronted by Sebastian with the news of health facilities being devastated by the Israeli attacks, Freeman denied the veracity of the reports. "As far as I’m aware, we haven’t hit any hospitals in Gaza at all."
The Israeli official instead accused Hamas of using civilians to protect weapons from airstrikes. "They're deliberately putting their weapon places into, next to schools, next to hospitals, into civilian areas. That's what Hamas do," Freeman said. "The difference between us is this: that we use our weapons to defend our civilians and Hamas uses their civilians to defend their weapons."
Again pressed by Sebastian on Palestinian casualties and whether Israel's actions have been proportionate, Freeman reiterated that "we don't want any casualties. Before I'm Israeli, before someone's Palestinian, we're all human beings and the death of an innocent human being is an absolute tragedy."
But when confronted with the death toll, which reportedly includes at least 61 children, the Israeli advisor insisted that "this is about trying to make sure that Hamas don't have the ability and don't have the rockets to carry on attacking us...Hamas are the ones who are stealing the future of Palestinian children."
One of Israel’s most controversial actions in the recent operation was the bombardment of the Al-Jalaa 12-story building in Gaza that housed several media organizations, including the Associated Press news agency and Al-Jazeera.
The watchdog group Reporters Without Borders called for the International Criminal Court to investigate the attack for possible war crimes, saying that the airstrike was carried out with the intent of intentionally "obstructing media coverage" of the conflict.
Freeman refuted these allegations: "We have absolutely nothing against the press. Quite the opposite, we encourage the press to operate here and to shine a light on things … Hamas was cynically manipulating the media, manipulating the civilian infrastructure in order to put themselves in that building."
Asked whether the escalating hostilities were preventable, Freeman said Israel "made a number of attempts to de-escalate the situation on the ground" and defended the Israeli police’s decision to storm Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, an act which is considered to have triggered current events. "This year, for some reason, there were a small group of people, of agitators dictated to by Hamas, who decided to gather stones, rocks, fireworks and flares and to throw them on the Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall below," Freeman said. "The police, like in any other country, decided to restore order because praying is something that we encourage. Praying and worship is something we want on the Temple Mount."
The issue of how Israel and the Palestinians proceed forward has no doubt become more complicated by the latest outburst of violence. Freeman, however, says that from his government’s point of view, the ball is in Palestinians’ court to resume the peace talks. "We keep calling on the Palestinians to return to negotiations and to have discussions with us... We need the Palestinian Authority to do that. We need them to come to the table and say they are willing to talk to us and willing to discuss a better future for Israelis and for Palestinians."