Press Conference to Foreign Journalists by Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Tzipi Livni on the IDF operation in Gaza
Sderot, December 31, 2008
Introduction: Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has come today to Sderot after seeing a kindergarten and a school in Beersheba that were hit directly by Grad missiles from Gaza.
Mrs. Livni will want to show you some footage taken by the Israeli air force and after her presentation; she will take questions from the floor, one by one please.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni: Last Saturday at 11:30, Israel started its military operation in the Gaza Strip - there was no other alternative.
For eight years now, Israel has been under attack from the Gaza Strip and it has become worse. Hamas, which is an extreme Islamic organization, a terrorist organization, a designated terrorist organization, took control of the Gaza Strip and, in a way, took its civilians hostage and has been targeting Israel on a daily basis.
Hamas does not represent any kind of legitimate right or aspiration of the Palestinian people - it expresses its extremist ideology in the Gaza Strip vis-a-vis Israel and others in the region. Its ties are with Iran, Syria, and other radical elements in the region and the there is a point at which any government - and the Israeli government - must decide to stop this.
It is important to understand that Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip a few years ago in order to create a vision of peace. The Gaza Strip should have been the beginning of a Palestinian state, comprising the Gaza Strip and the West Bank as well, but instead of the creation of something that gives hope to the Palestinian people, as well as to the Israeli people, Hamas took control, after a coup against Abu Mazen and his group, and has been abusing the situation in order to target Israel.
Israel tried everything before the military operation.
A few months ago, we decided to agree to what is called “tahadia” in Arabic, or a truce - through the Egyptians, according to an Egyptian initiative. That was six months ago, but nothing happened according to the understanding. Hamas violated the truce on a daily basis in different ways.
One has been the smuggling of weapons. The border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, which is called the Philadelphia corridor, is a border with one passage, the Rafah passage. According to the basic understanding when Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip, there is an international agreement about Rafah that gives the Palestinian Authority, the legitimate Palestinian Authority, the right to control the passages on one side, and the Egyptians on the other side, with the supervision of the Europeans, and Israel is also connected to this.
But the Philadelphia corridor was abused and exploited in order to smuggle weapons from Egypt to the Gaza Strip.
Now, one of the elements of the truce declared six months ago was full cessation of the smuggling of weapons through these tunnels. Unfortunately, Hamas did not do that, and violated this agreement. Before the truce, the places that were under threat from the Gaza Strip were places in or near the Gaza Strip, including Sderot. Today a larger part of Israel is under this threat. I have just visited Beer Sheva which, for the first time, discovered that it is under the threat of Hamas missiles, due to the fact that during the truce, Hamas used these tunnels in order to get more and more missiles. We cannot accept, in the future, a situation in which Israel is being targeted. That is one point, and the other is the continuous smuggling of weapons from Egypt through the tunnels to the Gaza Strip.
Now, before the last operation, when I would speak with other international leaders and tell them that there are tunnels being used to smuggle weapons, I usually got the answer, “How do you know? You are not there.” And so I would like to show you an example of what we did during this operation. During this operation, Israel decided to bomb the Philadelphia corridor in places in which we knew that there are tunnels. In fact, you can see that, in the tunnels, there are explosives and you can see the bomb coming from the plane and then you can see the secondary explosion which is not the bomb dropped on the tunnel, but something exploding inside the tunnel. So, these are some examples of the last operation.
[A short film is shown]
You also see a greenhouse - or rather a greenhouse used as a disguise [for tunnels]. I recall that during the disengagement plan, we had ongoing discussions about whether to leave the greenhouses, which belonged to the settlers there, for the future agriculture of the Palestinians. Now you can see what kind of agriculture they have in the Gaza Strip since Hamas took control of it.
During this operation, Israel had a list of targets that are related directly to Hamas. We are talking about headquarters, we are talking about the places in which they gather; we are talking about the places where they manufacture missiles and we are talking about all of the places that are connected to Hamas as a government, not legitimate, but a government as a terrorist organization. All of these attacks are directly targeted at places that we know are part of Hamas and we are working in order to make a clear distinction between Hamas as a government and a terrorist organization, and the civilians.
But unfortunately, while we are doing so, you need to understand that they are not only living in these places. Some of the places in which they manufacture missiles are buildings in which people are living, and the civilians know that someone is a member of Hamas, or this is a place in which they manufacture missiles. So, during this operation and before it started, Israel announced in a communication, in the media and on the networks, asking that all of the civilians who are living in places which are very close to places in which Hamas works should leave. We also sent leaflets from the air, telling the people that they need to leave, and more than that, there are times in which we need to conduct an operation that is close to a residence or in a place which is close to houses. We call people, by phone, asking them to leave the place and even though that is more problematic because, in a way, we are giving them advance warning. We warn them in a phone call that something is going to happen there, because this is a part of our values. This is what we do. During this operation we made 90,000 phone calls to citizens to say to them that we are going to attack a place which is nearby and we asked them to leave because we did not want them to be involved or to cause them any harm.
We are working according to our values, according to something which is expected and rightly so, to make a distinction between Hamas and the civilians and during this operation. It is no less important to mention that the crossings to the Gaza Strip are open for humanitarian needs and when there are requests and demands from the international community and from organizations of the United Nations or other states, we open the crossings and enable them to provide any kind of aid, because, especially during this tough time, we must provide aid for the population and prevent any kind of humanitarian crisis.
These are the parameters within which we are working in this operation, which, as I said, started four days ago.
Q: Under what conditions would the Israeli attacks cease?
FM Livni: There is something that I am not going to do - I am not going to discuss in the press all of the options, military and others, and what Israel is doing. Israel is a democracy and, unfortunately, while there is a military operation and you can find some headlines that are related to such discussions. I am not going to be involved in this. What I have to say and what I want to say, I will say either behind closed doors to the Israeli cabinet, or in other meetings in Israel, or what messages I want to send, will not be through the press.
But there is one thing that the world needs to understand: Hamas wants to gain legitimacy from the international community. Hamas wants to show that there is a place which is called the Gaza Strip, that this kind of an organization - an extremist Islamic organization that acts by terrorism and which is a designated terrorist organization - can rule. And to make it seem a legitimate regime. So they want the crossings to be opened, not only for the sake of the population, but because this symbolically is how they can show that the Gaza Strip has become a kind of a small state, which is controlled by them. This is something that nobody can afford, neither Israel, nor the pragmatic leadership, nor the legitimate Palestinian leadership or government, nor any part of the moderate the Arab world.
Now, during the truce, and I will say this very clearly, the crossings are open for humanitarian needs. This is part of our responsibility and I would like to relate to it later in a different manner. But during the truce, Hamas targeted Israel saying that their only goal was to lift the closure and to gain legitimacy from the international community.
When Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip, the international community decided that they could gain legitimacy only by accepting the real requirements of the Quartet. One is to accept the right of Israel to exist, another is to renounce violence and terrorism and the third is to accept the former agreements between Israel and the Palestinians. Hamas needs to understand that the only way that they can gain legitimacy from the international community, and from Israel as well, is to accept these requirements. Terrorism cannot work. Targeting Israel does not mean that they are going to gain something that can even be perceived as a victory. If they want to live a peaceful life in the Gaza Strip, they can. If they want to gain legitimacy from the world, or to give some hope to their own people, they need to meet these requirements. Hamas want the Palestinian Authority, the legitimate Palestinian government out. They do not want them at the Rafah crossing, and they do not want Israel or the Palestinian Authority to be at the other crossings, so they can put Hamas flags in the Gaza Strip. And this is something that we cannot afford.
As I said before, Israel left the Gaza Strip and, from our perspective this was, or should have been, the end of an occupation, according to international law as well. But there are crossings and there is a border between Israel and the Gaza Strip, and according to our values and our responsibility these crossings are open for humanitarian needs, even though Hamas controls the Gaza Strip. But what they want is something else, and what I would like to say regarding the needs of the Palestinian Authority or the international agreement about Rafah and other crossings that involve the Palestinian Authority, is that the legitimate Palestinian Authority serves the interests of Israel, the Palestinian Authority itself, and the entire moderate Arab world.
But I am not going to negotiate through the press. I am not gong to do that.
It is also important to keep Hamas from becoming a legitimate organization because, unfortunately, there are those who are now putting Israel and Hamas in the same category, asking both sides to stop, and this is something which is part of my frustration and the frustration of the average Israeli because there is no comparison whatsoever between Israel and Hamas.
Q: [off mike]
FM Livni: Israel is acting against Hamas because Hamas targets Israel, because, as we saw, they abused the fact that Israel left the Gaza Strip; they used it in order to smuggle weapons and target Israel.
Israel wants to live in peace in this region. The goal of this operation is not to change the regime in the Gaza Strip, but there are some conditions. There is a reality that we cannot live with, or we could not live according to this reality any longer and we needed to change the equation.
Before this military operation, Hamas thought that since Israel was showing restraint although they were targeting Israel, and we knew that there was some smuggling of weapons on a daily basis, and Gilad Shalit, the abducted soldier, is still in their hands, that we would do nothing because Israel is too weak to have the support of the international community or because Israel is before elections. So we needed to change this equation and this is what we have already achieved, during this operation. This is the truth. We are not prepared to live any longer in a region and in a situation in which they believe that they can do whatever they like - hoping that Israel shows restraint because we are more responsible. We showed that this equation has changed.
Q: My question is about possible diplomatic initiatives. Yesterday President Lula da Silva from Brazil, from the United Nations desk, Mr. Kouchner - they suggesting expanding the Quartet to include other possible countries, like countries who participated in the Annapolis conference for example, like Brazil. Would you be in favor of that?
And the other question is why foreign journalists, and journalists in general, are not allowed in the Gaza Strip.
FM Livni: Thank you for asking about the Annapolis process, because this is also something that we need to understand. The hope for Annapolis lies in an understanding that we have this duel strategy - “we” means Israel and the international community and the legitimate Palestinian government, and the moderate Arab world. The idea is to work with the moderates, with the pragmatic leadership of the Palestinian Authority, with the legitimate government in order to implement the vision of two states for two peoples into reality. I strongly supported the Annapolis process. I still support it now and I am also the chief negotiator for the Israeli side with the Palestinians, in order to have this peace treaty, which will be concrete enough that it can translate the vision into reality.
The way to succeed in the Annapolis process is, on the one hand, to have this dialogue, these negotiations, and we have the outcome which serves the interests of both sides, Israel and the Palestinians. The Gaza Strip controlled by Hamas is a problem to the Annapolis process, to the Palestinians, because the Annapolis process is based on the understanding that no one can accept a terrorist state or an extreme Islamic state, which uses terrorism or a failed state in the region. This is the basic understanding.
So, as long as the Gaza Strip is controlled by Hamas, this is an obstacle on the Palestinians’ path to creating a state of their own and we know that Mahmoud Abbas, as the legitimate Palestinian government, has no place there right now. They cannot control and they do not have any kind of presence in the Gaza Strip.
So, the Gaza Strip is not only controlled by Hamas, and is not only a problem for Israel, it is also a problem to the rest of the Arab world and especially to the legitimate Palestinian government. Only if we work simultaneously in this dual strategy, continuing the Annapolis process, while fighting the extremists and the terrorists - this is the only way to prevail and to have some success in this complicated and problematic region. All of the talk about strengthening Mahmoud Abbas without simultaneously weakening Hamas, is not going to work. We must strengthen or work with the legitimate government in order to create a Palestinian state and giving an answer to the national aspirations of the Palestinians, while acting against those who just spread hatred and incitement and are not representing any kind of legitimate Palestinian rights.
I know that there is a kind of an eagerness coming from the international community to see a quiet region. Believe me, this is not only the eagerness of the international community - this is our dream. The last thing that I wanted today was to go to a school which was bombed or to come again to Sderot, a place in which I have been more than once, to meet the people who have been the target and under threat for years now. This is the last thing that we want. But we need to understand that this needs to be achieved from a position which Hamas respects and, unfortunately, they respect strength and power. And in terms of what can give us hope, to have quiet – not in terms of hours but something that can be sustained. So, this is the perspective and the goals of this operation.
Spokesperson: Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has asked me to answer you about preventing journalists from entering Gaza.
The decision was made by the Minister of Defense, who is in charge of the passages, and since Hamas started targeting the border crossings themselves, it was deemed by the Minister of Defense to be too dangerous to operate them. It is not too dangerous for journalists because you know what is good for you and you take your risks, but too dangerous for the operating teams. We do not want to send the operating teams to the passages, when they are directly and deliberately targeted by Hamas, to risk their lives.
The only exception is made for humanitarian aid - that is the only exception. Except for humanitarian aid, no other persons are allowed to go because we do not want our teams to risk their lives in operating these border crossings throughout the day. It is not a measure directed against journalists, or against diplomats, or against pharmacists, it is simply a measure intended to preserve the lives and the security of the operating teams. And they are taking risks when they operate the crossings to allow the humanitarian aid to go in.
Q: What are you going to answer to this proposal of truce coming from the European Union?
FM Livni: I read the European Union declaration of yesterday - I think there was a gathering from the European Union foreign ministers and the idea of what is being called the humanitarian cease fire was not mentioned there.
There is a call for a truce and, as I said before, we are acting in order to have something that is sustainable, something that can give us the possibility of living in peace and quiet and to provide our citizens the possibility of living in peace and quiet in the region. As long as Hamas continues to target Israel, this is something that needs to be addressed. Unfortunately, right now, by military means.
Q: You are going to France tomorrow, I guess, to meet with French President Sarkozy. What is going to be your main message to Mr. Sarkozy tomorrow?
FM Livni: The message that I have for the entire international community and international leaders, and I believe that President Sarkozy, since I know him and know what he believes in, can relate to this:
Israel is under ongoing attack from these terrorist organizations. Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip. Israel wants to live in peace but there are certain things that nobody can accept. No state in the world would have accepted the fact that its citizens are being targeted and children cannot go to school or to kindergartens because of these terrorists.
And, I would like the international community to give their support to Israel and, in doing so, to give us the time to do so, so that at the end of this military operation, the outcome will be victory for those who believe in our values. I truly believe that Israel and France share the same values. Our relationships are based on an understanding and since I know President Sarkozy, I know what his values are and how strongly he is fighting for these values, so I am sure that we can have this understanding.
Q: You want to strengthen the moderates on the Palestinian side. What effect do you think the bombing now, the Israeli bombing in Gaza, will have on the political mind set of the people there?
FM Livni: It depends on the determination of Israel and the legitimate Palestinian government, and the moderate Arab world.
It is clear that we know and they know exactly what Hamas is. They know that Hamas is a terrorist organization and they know that Hamas represents the agenda of hatred. They know that the conflict here is no longer a conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, but it is a conflict between the moderates and the extremists or the extremists against the moderates. They know that Iran is the threat in this region, to them as well, not only the Palestinians, but the pragmatic Palestinian leadership, and also to other Arab and Muslim states, and they know the nature of this threat, believe me, better than the rest of us. Because about the Arab world faces this kind of radical element back home, they know that we cannot afford Hamas in the region.
So, what we are doing serves the interests of everybody, and everybody who believes in two states for two peoples and those who want to implement this.
Now, it is true that this is not easy and it is sometimes difficult for leadership to face public opinion. And we know that sometimes pictures coming from the Gaza Strip are not easy to look at, that they show the despair of the people, and they show wounded people. This is something that provokes and that creates hard feelings and hatred against Israel. But there are moments in time in which leaders needs to show their determination and values and to act according to what they believe in, because without that, there is nothing. If Hamas controls the Gaza Strip, Hamas is getting stronger and if Hamas gains more power in the West Bank, the Palestinian state and the Palestinian society are doomed.
So, I know that it is not easy. I can tell you that during the most horrific terror attack I conducted negotiations with Abu Ala and with Abu Mazen, saying to my own people that I needed to continue the Annapolis process with the Palestinians, because this serves the interests of Israel as well. Because there is a price for stagnation. There is a price for the unwillingness to continue the process, and they need to say to their own people that there is a price for not fighting this kind of terrorism. I know that it is not easy and I know that courage is needed and while we are talking, there is a gathering of the Arab League foreign ministers, sitting together, and I hope that the voices there will reflect the understanding that this is something that it is not Israel against the Arab world or against the Palestinian population, but something that belongs to a different category here in the region. So, I hope that they give support to the Palestinian leadership, because the Palestinian leadership needs the support of the entire Arab world.
Mayor of Sderot: I would simply want to warmly welcome the dear friends gathered here, and I would like to hope that you will not be misguided by the peace and quiet that you find here at this moment in time.
For the past eight years, there was not one single moment, there was not even one single day, that in the heart of every child, in this town, there was not alarm, a red alert alarm, working and alarming. And each child in this area lives with the feeling before, during and after the red alert. And so, if we are all here, I would like us to dedicate a thought to all of the children who were born here during the past eight years, and who do not know any other reality, any other reality than this one. Our common sense expresses the desire that peace should come to this region. But this peace must be on both sides of the border. And peace and quiet should be with every boy and every girl, no matter where they are.
During these eight years, we were the side who were being attacked and not the side who did the attacking. And so this last Shabbat, at 11.30 in the morning, when we heard that the beginning of the operation by our army had been launched, we finally understood that we are living in a state which does what it has to do in order to protect its citizens.
We are proud to be the citizens of such a state, a state which, besides protecting its citizens, does everything not to harm those people who are innocent.
I am grateful that you came here and I hope that your service here will be both quiet and pleasant. And when you leave here at the end of the day, when you return to your homes, you will remember that we stay here and we also deserve some quiet and peace.