The English section of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s August 6 press conference, as transcribed by the Prime Minister’s Office:
(Netanyahu begins by showing a photograph from UNRWA’s Shahada al-Manar elementary school for boys. The picture is at the bottom of the Hebrew text here.)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: That’s the thing that you see there in reddish color and you see right around, that’s four mortars fired. Five mortars are fired. One mortar fired. One mortar fired. Right around that school. It’s very important to see that and to understand what kind of conditions our forces are facing from Gaza.
Here’s a terror tunnel near a school (also pictured at the bottom of this Hebrew text). You see the big building to the right of the arrows? That’s a school. You see civilian houses in a distance of a few meters, a mosque literally touching the school, civilian houses around it. This is where the terror tunnels are dug, and may I say that in many places the terror tunnels were dug from homes. From homes. From inside the homes. So, that is an example again of the use of civilian areas both to fire rockets at our civilians and to dig the terror tunnels for the death squads to reach our people, kidnap and kill them.
I expect, now that the members of the press are leaving Gaza, or some of them are leaving Gaza, and are no longer subjected to Hamas restrictions and intimidations, I expect we’ll see even more documentation of Hamas terrorists hiding behind the civilian population, exploiting civilian targets. I think it’s very important for the truth to come out.
The goal of Operation Protective Edge was and remains to protect Israeli civilians. That means to protect our people from roughly 3,500 rockets, three thousand five hundred rockets, that Hamas and the other terrorist groups have fired on our cities, on our towns, on our civilians, on our children in the last month. The goal of this operation was to protect our people from the threat of terror tunnels built to send death squads into Israel, to commit terrorist atrocities against Israel’s civilians, to kidnap and to kill.
Israel deeply regrets every civilian casualty, every single one. We do not target them; we do not seek them. The people of Gaza are not our enemy. Our enemy is Hamas; our enemy are the other terrorist organizations trying to kill our people. And we’ve taken extraordinary circumstances and measures to avoid civilian casualties.
The tragedy of Gaza is that it is ruled by Hamas – a tyrannical and fanatical terror group that relishes civilian casualties. They want civilian casualties. They use them as PR fodder. So it’s not that they don’t want them; they want them. And they pretty much say so.
Indeed Hamas has adopted a strategy that abuses and sacrifices Gaza’s civilians. They use them as human shields; they endanger them and deliberately increase the death toll. They fire their rockets at Israel from schools, from hospitals, from mosques. You’ve just seen that. From urban neighborhoods, and right next to schools where journalists are staying. You can discover that for yourself.
Of course nearly everyone says that they support Israel’s right to defend itself, and we appreciate those who say this. But there are those who refuse to recognize or to let Israel exercise that right. They would allow Hamas to attack with impunity, because they say “they’re firing from schools or from mosques or from hospitals and Israel should not take action against them.”
That’s obviously a mistake. It’s a moral mistake. It’s an operational mistake. Because that would validate and legitimize Hamas’s use of human shields, and it would hand an enormous victory to terrorists everywhere and a devastating effect to the free societies that are fighting terrorism.
If this were to happen, more and more civilians will die around the world, because this is a testing period now. Can a terrorist organization fire thousands of rockets at cities of a democracy? Can a terrorist organization embed itself in civilian areas? Can it dig terror tunnels from civilian areas? Can it do so with impunity because it counts on the victimized country to respond as it must, as any country would, and then be blamed for it? Can we accept a situation in which the terrorists would be exonerated and the victims accused?
This is the issue that stands not only before the international community today regarding Israel; it stands before the international community with a wave of radical terrorists that are now seizing vast cities, civilian populations and doing exactly the tactic that Hamas is doing.
That’s exactly what ISIL is doing, what Hezbollah is doing, what Boko Haram is doing. What Hamas is doing is what is al-Qaeda is doing.
And the test now is not merely the test for the international community’s attitude towards Israel – an embattled democracy using legitimate means against these double war crimes of targeting civilians and hiding behind civilians. The test is for the civilized world itself, how it is able to defend itself.
Israel accepted and Hamas rejected the Egyptian ceasefire proposal of July 15th. Now I want you to know that at that time, the conflict had claimed some 185 lives. Only on Monday night did Hamas finally agree to that very same proposal, which went into effect yesterday morning. That means that 90%, a full 90% of the fatalities in this conflict could have been avoided had Hamas not rejected then the ceasefire that it accepts now.
Hamas must be held accountable for the tragic loss of life. It must be ostracized from the family of nations for its callous abuse of civilians, and Hamas must be prevented from rearming as part of Gaza’s general demilitarization. That is the sure way to guarantee that this conflict will not repeat itself.
And I’m very glad that Secretary Kerry and others have put forward the need to demilitarize Gaza. This is a long-standing Palestinian obligation yet to be fulfilled. Setting anew this long-term goal is important for Israel, it’s important for the people of Gaza and for all of us who want to see an end to the violence and an end to the suffering.
Every civilian casualty is a tragedy. A tragedy of Hamas’s own working. I think the Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel put it best when he said, Hamas is engaging in child sacrifice. And this is something for which it must be held accountable. For the sake of all our children, it must not be allowed to get away with this.
Question: “[Inaudible] I wanted to ask: You mentioned the Israeli [inaudible]. That was before the ground operation, before the tunnels [inaudible] and I wanted to ask, will you therefore, if Hamas had accepted the ceasefire at that stage, the tunnels would not have been dealt with and I wanted to ask therefore, people are asking, was it a strategic goal, was it the goal of this operation, was Israel kind of improvising, was there a strategic plan here or were you [inaudible]. And a second question if I may, we’ve seen since the murder of Mohammed Abu Khdair, since the West Bank operations, since the Gaza operation, they are rioting, attacks [inaudible] violence in Jerusalem, riots in Jerusalem, the Temple Mount and I just wondered if there is concern at the spread of the violence [inaudible].”
Netanyahu: Thank you. We started dealing with the tunnels – first of all, we were going to deal with the threats posed from Gaza either by military means or by diplomatic means – one of the two or both. We began dealing with the first tunnel before the Egyptian initiative. I don’t know if you’re aware of it, but we had information about an impending attack from one terror tunnel and we took action before we had the air attacks on our, before we had the air attacks on Gaza in response to their rocketing attacks. We actually dealt with one tunnel.
If we could have dealt with the rest of the tunnels through the Egyptian proposal, which had an immediate ceasefire as we have now, and both sides could raise the topics, and specifically the issue of security would be released. That was mentioned there. When we said “security,” we meant obviously that we would bring up the question of the tunnels: could we deal with it through non-military means and the other threat against Israel – and that’s preferable. As it turned out, Hamas rejected this and therefore we had to deal with them in military means. So we addressed the other tunnels, in addition to the one we had already addressed with military means by doing the, by actually going in.
That first tunnel was struck from the air. We didn’t know that it achieved the result and it’s very hard to achieve that result from the air. You either achieve it by agreement or you achieve it by actually going in to the other side, finding the points of origin of the tunnel or a point of origin, identify the trajectory of the tunnel and then dismantling it, destroying it through various means. And that’s basically what we did. If we could have done it diplomatically, fine. If not, we did it militarily and the army just told us that they completed this activity and then we went out. We went in to deal with the tunnels; we went out after we finished dealing with the tunnels.
[Regarding the Jerusalem question] Well, obviously we’re concerned. We hope that everyone, everyone will work now to calm the situation. That has been our goal from the very beginning in Jerusalem, everywhere, in the Palestinian areas. We don’t need to see loss of life there anymore than we want to see it on the Gaza front. I want to make sure that – you mentioned the Temple Mount – so I want to make sure that everyone understands that Israel respects and will continue to respect the status quo on the Temple Mount. We know that there are arrangements there, including the traditional role of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, and we are not about to change it.
Question: “Prime Minister, [unclear] for CNN. First of all, the IDF has suffered the largest casualties yet in any Palestinian-Israeli conflict. We understand 61 soldiers killed, three civilians. We’ve seen more than 1,800 people killed in Gaza, 900 or almost 1,000 of which are civilians, estimated. Do you really feel that your actions, Israel’s actions were proportionate? And were you using the appropriate precision weapons even if Hamas is using them as human shields?”
Netanyahu: Why don’t you ask the first question? Let me answer that, then you can ask the second question. Why don’t we do that?
So first of all, the answer to both your questions is yes, I think it was justified, I think it was proportional and that doesn’t in any way take away from the deep regret for, we have for the loss of a single civilian. We’ve gone to extraordinary lengths to avoid civilian casualties. Hamas has gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure that they have civilian casualties, as you’ve just seen. Now, let’s imagine your country – it could be any country, could be the US, could be Britain, could be Germany, France, India, you name it. Let’s imagine your country attacked by 3,500 rockets. Your territory is infiltrated by death squads. What would you do? What would you demand that your government do to protect you and your family? You’d demand that and you’d be right because security, protecting the people, is the first obligation of any government. But what if the rockets are fired from civilian areas? And the tunnels come from schools, from mosques, from private houses where civilians live? Should you then not take action?
Do the terrorists have immunity because of the fear that some civilians will unfortunately get hurt?
Let me tell you what I think disproportionality is: It’s not acting to defend your people and giving the terrorists a license to kill. I think that’s disproportionate and that’s wrong.
Question: “Thanks very much. Mr. Prime Minister, are you prepared to give Abu Mazen and the Palestinian Authority a leading role in the post-war order in Gaza? And if so, can you talk about that, specifics, including policing the borders?”
Netanyahu: We have cooperated and are cooperating with the Palestinian Authority on matters that you raised. There are other matters as well, and the answer is that we are cooperating with them and are prepared to see a role for them.
We’re dealing with that right now. I think it’s important in the reconstruction of Gaza, in assuring the humanitarian aid and also the security questions that arise, that we have these discussions and the cooperation with them. And in fact, the ceasefire was coordinated, among other things, with them. It came from Egypt, but they were aware of it and they were speaking to, for the factions, as you know.
As far as the humanitarian aid, since I mentioned it: You know, we’ve given 2,000, we’ve passed roughly 2,000 trucks of humanitarian aid during the last month or so in which this conflict raged. We even gave humanitarian aid – most of these trucks came during the fire. A lot of them came during the ceasefire, the humanitarian ceasefire that Hamas refused to recognize for its own people. It’s quite amazing. We have to do the ceasefire, the humanitarian ceasefire efforts when Hamas doesn’t do it so we even sometimes, many times actually, unilaterally called ceasefire humanitarian pauses, which they didn’t recognize, but we put in the trucks. We opened a field hospital right on the Gaza passage, in the Erez Crossing on our side, and we called Palestinians who have a problem with hospitals that were being used by Hamas as terrorist sites, as command centers, as firing posts, and we said, okay, we’ll open a field hospital and we did on our side.
And you know what Hamas did? It prevented and warned Palestinians not to go there. Well some of them straggled through somehow and we dealt with them. And we are now dealing with our people to address the fuel, throughout the conflict, fuel, electricity stoppages and so on.
So Israel is going all out on humanitarian effort, and we’re prepared to do more and we think more should be done. We just hope that Hamas will start caring for its people and stop preventing humanitarian aid for them, stop sacrificing them as human shields, stop shooting them when they protest because that’s what happens when people protest and they say to Hamas, “What have you done to us?” Well, they just execute them. Just as they prevent journalists from putting out the full truth and journalists, justifiably are concerned. I can understand that.
And Hamas, Hamas does incredible things, just incredible things. There is a report – it’s not my report, it’s the Journal of Palestinian Studies in 2012. Note the year. It’s a few years ago and they’ve since, they’ve done more things. Hamas officials, according to the Journal of Palestinian Studies, reported that at least 160 children had been killed digging the tunnels. There is something fundamentally wrong here. Hamas is sacrificing its people, sacrificing its children and it should not be allowed to get away with it. These are tragedies. The loss of a single child is a tragedy. The loss of mothers, women, families, is a tragedy. But this tragedy should be put squarely where the responsibility for it belongs. The responsibility for this tragedy belongs with Hamas. It’s a deliberate strategy.
Question: “Mr. Prime Minister, you mentioned Secretary Kerry’s comments supporting demilitarization of Gaza. I’m wondering if you also support what he said about the need to think bigger now, to use the Cairo talks as an opportunity to think more broadly about a two-state solution and if so, what will Israel do to move in that direction?”
Netanyahu: First of all, I had a very good conversation with John, with Secretary Kerry today. We work very closely with him and with the US Administration, with President Obama, throughout this operation and before. And there are reports of the substance and the tone of our relationship that are distorted. They don’t capture the essence of the common values that bind our societies together and bind our governments together. And I appreciate the support that the United States has shown for Israel’s right to self-defense and the appropriation that I asked for, for an additional 225 million dollars of support for Iron Dome. I think these are all very important things for which the people of Israel are deeply grateful and I want to express that.
I think the Secretary’s statement on demilitarization as a strategic long-term goal is very important. I think he’s right that there are opportunities now, perhaps opportunities that we have not seen before with a realignment of important parties in the Middle East to be able to fashion a new reality, one more conducive to the end of violence, to the establishment of calm, a sustainable peace or at least a sustainable quiet which can lead to other things. That is yet to be seen, but that is a goal I think worthy of exploration and pursuit. That’s my goal.