Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday night set out a moral justification for the way the IDF has dealt with the Hamas strategy of firing rockets at Israel, and tunneling under the Israeli border, from the heart of Palestinian residential neighborhoods in Gaza.
Arguing that Israel’s battle over the past month against terrorists in Gaza using civilians as human shields came during a critical test period, he said it would be a “moral mistake” as well as a practical one to not take action against terrorists operating from mosques, schools and other civilian areas.
Such behavior would represent “an enormous victory for terrorists everywhere,” he said, and would result in more and more civilian deaths around the world.
“What’s happening now is not only a test for Israel but for the international community, for the civilized world itself, [for] how it is to defend itself,” Netanyahu declared at a press conference on the second day of a 72-hour ceasefire that began on Tuesday morning.
Terrorists must not be allowed to “fight from civilian areas with impunity” and rely on world condemnation of the victimized nation — in this case, Israel — for responding to attacks, he warned.
The prime minister blamed Hamas for Gaza’s civilian deaths, due to its rejection of various ceasefire proposals throughout the campaign and its deliberate basing of its military infrastructure in the heart of Gaza population centers.
Palestinian sources in Gaza say that over 1,800 people were killed in the past month during Operation Protective Edge; Israel says it killed some 900 combatants, and Netanyahu stressed that Israel “regrets” every civilian death. Israel entered the campaign in order to stem rocket fire from Gaza at Israeli towns and cities as well as to destroy a network of tunnels, dug by Hamas under the border, and used to launch attacks inside Israeli territory.
“Ninety percent of the fatalities could have been avoided had Hamas not rejected then the ceasefire it accepts now,” he said of an Egyptian ceasefire proposal that Israel accepted three weeks ago. “Hamas needs to be blamed for these deaths, ostracized from the family of nations.”
Israel’s response to the Hamas rocket and tunnel threat was “justified and proportionate” Netanyahu asserted, adding that “every civilian casualty is a tragedy — a tragedy of Hamas’s making.”
It would have been “disproportionate” not to act, he reasoned, and therefore “to get our people killed.”
Hamas fired over 3,000 rockets at Israel, including 600 from near to schools, mosques and homes, the Israeli army said Tuesday. Hamas gunmen also killed 11 IDF soldiers when emerging into Israel from its cross-border tunnels. Netanyahu said Wednesday that the Hamas “death squads” had planned much larger attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians through the tunnels, and that demolishing them, as Israel has done in recent weeks, was a strategic necessity. In all, Israel lost 64 soldiers and three civilians in the campaign.
The prime minister presented evidence to back up his assertions of Hamas’s reliance on Gazans as human shields, showing footage of what he said were mortars fired from near an UNRWA elementary school for boys. He also described a “terror tunnel” near a school and many tunnels dug from inside homes.
“I think it’s very important for the truth to come out,” he said, devoting a section of his press conference to remarks in English, taking questions from foreign journalists, and saying Hamas had subjected foreign journalists to intimidation in Gaza in recent weeks.
He also screened footage from indian, Finnish and French TV of Hamas firing rockets from civilian areas, including the outskirts of Gaza City’s main hospital — footage that was only broadcast in the last few days.
Netanyahu offered condolences for the Palestinian citizens harmed or killed during the operation.
“Israel deeply regrets every civilian casualty, every single one. We do not target them. People of Gaza are not our enemies. Our enemy is Hamas,” the prime minister said.
The decision to pull forces out of Gaza last weekend was made only once the 30-plus sophisticated Hamas tunnels had been destroyed, he said. Netanyahu added that Israel was working “to create technological means to locate new tunnels that will reach into our territory.”
Netanyahu stressed the need to prevent Hamas from rearming. That, he said, is the way “to prevent this conflict from bring repeated.”
With regard to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s role in negotiating a truce, Netanyahu said that the PA had played a part in talks and would continue to do so. Hamas seized control of Gaza from the PA in a violent takeover in 2007.
“We have cooperated and are cooperating with the PA,” he said. “We’re prepared to see a role for them [in] the reconstruction of Gaza, humanitarian aid, security questions. The ceasefire agreement was coordinated with them.”
Despite reports of bitter differences between Israel and the Obama administration throughout the war, Netanyahu thanked US Secretary of State John Kerry for his support, saying he had another “very good” conversation with Kerry on Wednesday afternoon. He welcomed Kerry’s calls for the disarmament of Gaza-based terror groups.
He also praised the “iron discipline” of Israelis — a play on the “Iron Dome” which intercepted hundreds of the Hamas rockets — and lauded the Israel Defense Forces.
“The IDF is an amazing army,” he said. “It’s a strong army [and] had major achievements. It stood and stands by all the requirements. The entire nation is behind the IDF, during peace and during war.
“I am proud of the IDF. I am proud to be the prime minister of such a united people.”
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.