The Israel-Hamas war has raised many concerns about the duration of the war, the risk of escalation to a multifront war with Hezbollah in the north, the fate of the Israeli hostages taken by Hamas, the humanitarian situation in Gaza, and the death toll among the civilian Palestinian in Gaza.
Haim Regev, Israel’s ambassador to the EU and NATO in Brussels, covered some of the questions in my interview with him. The interview took place exactly one month after Hamas surprise terrorist attack against Israel on 7 October and one week after the launch of the Israeli ground offensive into the north of the Gaza Strip.
“We shouldn’t forget how the war started. 7 October was the darkest day in Jewish and Israeli history since the Holocaust. More than 3,000 Hamas terrorists invaded us. We were shocked by the murderous attack. It was pure evil and even worse than ISIS. We know that it was planned a long time in advance after interrogating captured terrorists.”
After one month after the attack, and despite the footage which has been published about the atrocities committed by Hamas, there is a tendency to forget how the war started with Hamas unprovoked attack and some accuse Israel of intentionally bombing Palestinian civilians. Hamas with an extremist Islamist ideology violated Islam which forbids the killing of innocent children and women.
“Our war is not against the Palestinians in Gaza who also are suffering under Hamas rule,” he said. “Our goal is to defeat and dismantle Hamas, which is an EU-designated terrorist organisation, and rescue or bring about a release of all hostages. Hamas leaders are still threatening us that they would repeat their murderous attack if they could.”
A few hostages have been released by Hamas but until now there has been no progress in the talks mediated by Qatar about the release of all hostages, regardless of their nationality, in exchange for the Palestinian security prisoners in Israeli prisons. The international Red Cross has not been allowed to visit the 240 hostages still held by Hamas.
Were you as surprised as everyone else in the Israeli government and military at the timing of the attack?
“We were shocked about the savagery and brutality of the attack,” he replied. That’s of course true but the Israeli leadership lulled itself in a false feeling that it could buy calm at the border and that Hamas was constrained and had no interest in risking everything in a war. The timing of the attack came as a total surprise to Israel.
“Before the attack, up to 20,000 Palestinians from Gaza wore working in Israel for a much higher wage than they could receive in Gaza, supporting hundreds of thousands of people. Israel was helping Gaza with desalination plants and there were plans to develop natural gas fields close to Gaza for the benefit of its economy. But we were wrong to think that Hamas cared about their own people,” he admitted.
Are you convinced that Israeli is doing everything possible to limit civilian casualties?
“I’m 100 % convinced,” he assured. “We delayed the ground offensive and warned them about the offensive to give the civilian population enough time to move to the south of the Gaza Strip for their own safety. We believe that it’s enough. But Hamas is preventing them from moving and is using civilians as human shields.” Reportedy 1 million people have moved to the south but a few hundred thousands are still left in Gaza City and the north of the Strip.
He doesn’t trust the figures of the Hamas-run health ministry about the civilian death toll that cannot be independently verified. “How can one trust them? The allegation of an Israeli strike against a hospital was a blatant lie. It wasn’t a hospital but a parking place next to the hospital. There were not hundreds of fatalities but perhaps tens. And it was a misfired rocket from their side which caused the explosion.”
Israel seems to disregard the fact that the civilian population will hardly have any homes to return to in the north of Gaza after all the destruction there. Israel has also been forced to evacuate ca 250,000 civilians from locations close to the border with Gaza and to Lebanon in the north.
It is an asymmetric war between a regular army and a terrorist organisation where protecting civilians is a challenge for the army. Hamas knows how to protect itself in an extensive network of tunnels under civilian buildings and facilities and uses civilians as human shields. It has openly transferred all responsibility for protecting innocent civilians to the United Nations and Israel, its sworn enemy.
Compared to previous rounds of hostilities, it seems that Israel has stretched the international rules on protecting civilians after declaring war against Hamas. In previous rounds, the Israeli military used to issue warnings before bombing residential buildings where Hamas operatives were living or operating.
Do you notice any differences of opinion between the EU institutions in their support for Israel?
Without directly addressing the question, the ambassador referred to the recent European Council Conclusions and the European Parliament resolution. They more or less express the same common EU position, condemning Hamas’ terrorist attack, expressing strong support for Israel’s right to self-defense, and underling the importance of respecting international and humanitarian law.
Does the EU share Israel’s goal to dismantle Hamas’ military capacity and infrastructure in Gaza?
While all EU institutions call for “humanitarian pauses” in the war and stress the need to restart the peace-process after the war, the European Parliament was the only institution which explicitly said that the terrorist organisation needs to be “eliminated” as a condition for future peace. “The resolution was supported by an overwhelming majority of the MEPs,” he stressed.
European Commission President von der Leyen said at the press conference after the Council meeting that Hamas must be defeated. Council President Michel added that there is no role for Hamas after the war. Von der Leyen elaborated on the end-goals in her speech on Monday (6 November) at the annual EU Ambassadors Conference in Brussels. She listed five priorities or red lines.
“First of all, Gaza can be no safe haven for terrorists. Second, this implies that the terrorist organisation Hamas cannot control or govern Gaza. There should be only one Palestinian Authority, and one Palestinian State. Third, there can be no long-term Israeli security presence in Gaza. Fourth, no forced displacement of Palestinians from Gaza. And finally, no sustained blockade of Gaza. This policy has not worked.”
“A ceasefire now would be a win for Hamas, “Ambassador said. “That’s what they want. They are hiding with their families in the tunnels.”
In his speech at the EU Ambassadors Conference, Josep Borrell, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security, described the history of the conflict and the failure until now to solve the it. “Why has the Oslo Agreement not been implemented? Because the forces of denial in both camps have continued growing under the hubris of some and the desperation of others.”
“There is no successful military operation without a political strategy behind… But one thing has to be clear. We will not go back to the situation of the 6th of October 2023. This has to be an opportunity for peace.”
Rhetoric and focus often differ in the EU statements. Josep Borrell usually issues statements on behalf of all EU member states but in a recent speech to the European Parliament Assembly he felt obliged to defend himself against criticism and made statements that some felt disturbing.
“It’s not a political issue for us,” Ambassador Regev replied diplomatically. “He was as shocked as all by Hamas’ attack and cares for the Israeli hostages.”
Will Israel lose its international legitimacy for the war if it continues for months with increasing destruction and death toll in the Gaza Strip?
“Right now, we still have it,” he replied. But no-one seems to know how long time it might take to dismantle and eliminate Hamas as a military and political force, if it at all is possible. The public opinion which already has started to swing could erode the EU support for Israel’s war goals under the influence of pro-Palestinian demonstrations and communities.
Is Israel on the brink of an escalation with Hezbollah entering the war?
“Iran is the main sponsor of Hamas but also Hezbollah,” he replied. “Without Iran, the Hamas attack wouldn’t have happened.”
“We are ready for an escalation with Hezbollah and every scenario. “We have deployed less than 50 % of our air force against Hamas. There is no doubt that we’ll win if Hezbollah escalates from its current incursions and low-intensive war in the north to a large-scale war.”
Hezbollah has a much bigger arsenal of rockets than Hamas, including high-precise missiles that can reach all Israel. Such a war could cause much more damage to the Israel home front. In his speech on Friday, Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, said that it was Hamas’ war and that Hezbollah is supporting Hamas by diverting Israeli troops to the north.
The speech was overall interpreted that he did not plan to interfere with full force in the war as Hamas had hoped but on the other hand, he left all options on the table. The situation can spiral out of control by mistakes on both sides, nor can it be excluded that Nasrallah is trying to fool Israel and did not show all his cards.
The risk of escalation with Hezbollah is still estimated as 50/50 – that is, no-one knows for sure what will happen. At some point of time, Lebanon, a failed stated dominated by an Iranian proxy, would have to deal with Hezbollah to ensure its own survival and political and economic future.
Will Israel resume the peace process after Hamas has been defeated?
“Right now, we are focusing on fighting Hamas,” Ambassador Regev replied. This is also the standard response from the Israeli government which before the war had lost all interest in offering the Palestinians a political perspective. “Israel is looking into the possibility of an international coalition against Hamas, as proposed by French president Macron,” he added.
Such a coalition could deprive Hamas of any support by other countries and shorten the duration of the war but it does not replace restarting the peace process. A political perspective is probably necessary to preserve the international legitimacy for dismantling Hamas despite the high costs linked to the goal and breaking the vicious circle of hatred and constant wars.
“It’s not a war against the Palestinians,” he concluded. “It’s important to achieve a clear victory against Hamas, not only for Israel but for also for the EU and the West.”