Ambassador Yaakov Levy

Israel rep speaks on Gaza

Ambassador shares views on Hamas, Obama, EU diplomacy

Levy denies Red Cross claims that Israel blocked access to humanitarian aid in afflicted areas of Gaza.

On Dec. 27, 2008, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) launched an offensive in response to rocket fire from the Gaza Strip. A ground invasion followed. The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR), a Gaza based nonprofit unaffiliated with Hamas, counts 1,285 dead Palestinians, among that 280 children and 111 women. Israel disputes these figures, and the IDF tallies 13 Israeli deaths in the conflict, including three civilians and four soldiers killed by friendly fire. Israeli Ambassador to the Czech Republic Yaakov Levy has previously served in New York, Rome, Boston and the United Nations in Geneva. As European leaders join in negotiations following the Jan. 18 ceasefire announcements, Levy talks to The Prague Post about Gaza and other issues.

The Prague Post: Why does Israel not consider its action in Gaza disproportionate or unfair?

Yaakov Levy: There were a few goals to the operation. One was to change the equation, according to which Hamas felt free to shoot rockets at will against Israeli towns and villages. A second was to try and destroy as many tunnels leading from the Sinai to Gaza through which weapons, ammunition, explosives and personnel trained in Iran were coming to Gaza.

The nature of the terrain, the nature of the conflict – between a state and a nonstate actor – and the fact that the fighting was in an urban area created a situation of more casualties on the Palestinian side than on the Israeli side. The other factor contributing to the discrepancy is the attitude of both parties. While Israel prepared shelters, early warning systems, hospitals and ambulances over the last decade, the Hamas leadership saw advantages in creating or sustaining a large number of civilian casualties to create outrage against Israel in Gaza and in the Arab world.

The nature of the terrain, the nature of the conflict – between a state and a nonstate actor – and the fact that the fighting was in an urban area created a situation of more casualties on the Palestinian side than on the Israeli side. The other factor contributing to the discrepancy is the attitude of both parties. While Israel prepared shelters, early warning systems, hospitals and ambulances over the last decade, the Hamas leadership saw advantages in creating or sustaining a large number of civilian casualties to create outrage against Israel in Gaza and in the Arab world.

TPP: How many of these objectives were achieved?

YL: In our view, the objectives on the whole were achieved. We are still missing a kidnapped Israeli soldier in Gaza, for close to two years now. We are saying as long as this soldier, Gilad Shalit, is not returned, the crisis in Gaza is not over.

TPP: The operation came in the last days of the Bush administration, when the United States was least able to influence Israeli actions. Israeli elections are planned for Feb. 10, and, with the conservative Likud party leading in the polls, it seems possible that the current leaders from the Kadima party want to appear strong on defense and not lose the election on security issues. Did these factors influence the timing?

YL: Had the Israeli operation come at a different time, do you think there would have been greater support from the parties who opposed it? I think not. Israel held forth for close to three years of continuous shelling. The specific timing of this operation was because Dec. 19, after six months, a state of calm expired. Hamas announced that the state of calm is over and renewed the shelling of Israeli towns. That was the reason for the specific timing, not the elections or the change of office in the United States.

TPP: The International Red Cross has noted that Israel has shown a “lack of respect and protection given to medical teams.” If it were a just cause or a just operation, why would journalists not be allowed to see it, and why would the Red Cross not have access the area?

YL: When the EU troika visited Israel, and I joined them from the Israeli side, they emphasized the need for humanitarian assistance, and Israel responded the very same day and opened up what were defined as humanitarian corridors – three- or four hour- almost daily hiatuses in the fighting, usually between 1 to 4 in the afternoon, allowing aid convoys to come in. It is not true that some access was denied. It was not continuous, but almost every day since the visit of the EU presidency, Israel allowed convoys to come in.

TPP: What do you think the Obama administration brings for Israel and more specifically toward solving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict?

YL: Israel has enjoyed bipartisan support from the United States throughout 60 years of existence. This stems from the joint moral and cultural heritage which we share, the values that we share, as well as a strategic view of the region and the international arena. Added to that in the recent decade is the need to fight terrorism. Israel is the underdog, and the Arabs have 21 countries and 57 Muslim countries. Israel is discriminated against in the United Nations, so it enjoys the support of the United States as a balance.

TPP: Many people see the United States as the only outside player able to significantly influence things in the Middle East, and the EU as secondary. Did the EU under the Czech Presidency accomplish anything on its recent attempts at diplomacy?

YL: I would not subscribe to the opinion that the EU did not accomplish anything. I believe they came on a fact-finding mission. The second goal was to affect the humanitarian situation on the ground. They discussed it with us at length and we acceded to several of their requests on the spot. Some examples are opening the humanitarian corridor, establishing a hiatus in fighting, establishing an enhanced, upgraded humanitarian situation room.

TPP: The current Israeli policy in Gaza seems to resemble the U.S. policy in Cuba in that it hopes to isolate the regime and force political support for the leadership to collapse underneath it. Eleven U.S. presidents have used this policy toward Cuba, and the regime remains. Why will your Gaza policy work?

YL: I will not refer to any analogy one way or the other. The situation in the Middle East is quite unique. Israel’s policy is one shared by the international community; it is not our own policy. It is first and foremost shared by the legitimate president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas. The fact that it hasn’t been successful doesn’t mean that it is the wrong policy.

Ambassador Yaakov Levy’s former postings

Consul in New York
Counselor in Rome
Consul general in Boston
Ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva
Diplomatic adviser to the speaker of the Knesset (Israeli Parliament)
Director of policy planning for the Israeli Foreign Affairs Ministry

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