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29th Feb 2024

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Israel's EU ambassador: 'No clean way to do this operation'

  • Israel's EU and Nato ambassador Haim Regev (Photo: mfa.gov.il)
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Palestinians in south Gaza will now be forced into new safe zones, Israel's EU and Nato envoy has said, adding "there's no clean way" to destroy Hamas.

"We need to go to the south [of Gaza]. It's a safe haven for them [Hamas], not all the south, some areas," Haim Regev, the Israeli ambassador, told EUobserver in Brussels on Thursday (30 November).

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  • Israel resumed bombing of Gaza on Friday after a week-long pause (Photo: idf.il)

"I won't go into what methods we'll use [ground incursion or air strikes], but, of course, we're going to try as much as we can to let people [Palestinian civilians] leave," he said.

Asked where they could go, given ongoing warfare in the ruined north and Gaza's sealed borders, Regev said: "There is still enough place to move to some areas [in south Gaza] that we will declare".

The Hamas group, which rules Gaza, attacked Israel on 7 October, murdering around 1,200 Israelis and taking approximately 240 people hostage.

Israel has killed around 15,000 people in Gaza, including 6,000 children and 4,000 women, and forced 1.8 million Palestinians to flee their homes over the past seven weeks, according to the UN.

Israel's stated objective is to destroy Hamas' main leadership and military capabilities in Gaza and to free Israeli hostages.

And this is why Israel has rejected UN and Arab calls for a durable ceasefire, Regev said, as a week-long pause in hostilities ended at 6AM on Friday morning.

"We need to complete this. There's not a 'day after' [the war] for Gaza as long as Hamas is there," he said.

"This is the meaning of stopping the war today — Hamas is there and we will not allow this to happen," he added.

A minority of EU countries, including Belgium, Ireland, and Spain, have voiced serious concerns at Israel's conduct of the war.

But Regev said top EU officials, and "[European Commission president Ursula] von der Leyen especially", as well as leading EU capitals, backed what Israel was doing.

"There is erosion [in EU sympathy], but if you look at the main countries, you see there's an understanding on the EU level, including leaders — we still see the support," he said.

The EU is drawing up proposals for who should govern Gaza after Israel stops fighting and pulls out its forces.

And Regev said the EU might have a role in what he called a post-war "interim period" of "demilitarisation and reconstruction".

"The EU is becoming more relevant to the next stage. I know it. We're discussing it", he said.

One option was to involve an ad hoc coalition of willing regional and other foreign nations.

But Regev ruled out the Palestinian Authority (PA), which governs parts of the West Bank, calling it "unready" for the task.

He also said the UN was unfit because its Unifil peacekeeping force can't even manage to police the Israel-Lebanon border.

Regev spoke to EUobserver the same day Hamas claimed responsibility for killing four Israelis in Jerusalem.

Israel has killed over 200 people in the West Bank and East Jerusalem since 7 October.

But the Israeli ambassador said that while Hamas had cells in the West Bank, "there is no war there".

He voiced "concern" Gaza bloodshed could radicalise Palestinians and Muslims further afield, but said an EU crackdown on funds for Hamas and related groups would help curb recruitment.

One reason for the "erosion" in European sympathy were the ever-louder calls that Israel was violating international law by disproportionate use of force in Gaza, forced displacement, and collective punishment.

But Regev said: "Gaza is one big military base — they [Hamas] use every single place to hide rockets, explosives, so what do you want us to go [sic], surgery? To risk our soldiers?".

"There is no clean way to do this operation, like there was no clean way to beat the Nazis or Isis", he said, referring to an Islamist extremist group formerly based in Syria.

Two Israeli ministers (Gila Gamliel and Avi Dichter) have called to expell all Palestinians from Gaza.

One minister (Amichai Eliyahu) said Gaza should be nuked, while Israeli president Isaac Herzog has said: "It is an entire nation out there that is responsible".

When asked if Israelis "hated" Palestinian people because of what Hamas did, Regev said: "No. No. No."

But he said there were feelings of "fear", "rage", and "betrayal" in Israeli society, as well as "zero trust" toward Palestinian people.

The veteran 56-year-old diplomat was himself "shocked" after watching graphic images of Hamas' atrocities, he told this website. "What struck me most was their joy amid the brutality", he said.

Regev added, however: "I feel sorry for them [Palestinian civilians in Gaza]. I feel sorry for them, definitely — sorry for people who have to flee their homes".

Root causes

But if the ambassador still had friends in high places in Brussels, then Israel's grant of €40m for West-Bank settlers in the middle of last week's ceasefire drew EU rebukes.

"This is not self-defence," said EU foreign-relations chief Josep Borrell at the time. Violent settlers were "pouring fuel on the fire", US national-security adviser Jake Sullivan also said on 29 October.

The EU has been warning for years that the 700,000 "illegal" Israeli settlers in the West Bank, as well as the daily cruelties of Israel's occupation, were "root causes" of instability.

But Regev dismissed that, saying: "I am not ashamed of it [the new settler grant]. No. This is not part of the war. This is definitely not part of the war".

He also justified the West Bank killings since 7 October, adding: "Did you see the list of people who were killed there? They're terrorists. They're Hamas activists trying to join the party".

This was not entirely true, according to the UN, which says 54 of the Palestinians killed were children and that eight people were murdered by settlers.

But for Regev, the only cause of the 7 October pogrom was antisemitic indoctrination of Palestinians and other Arabs by Hamas and by the Muslim Brotherhood.

The brotherhood is an international Islamist group backed politically by Qatar and Turkey, but called terrorists by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.

"They have a problem that Jews live in Palestine. The end of the road goes back to this ideological movement … it's not only a terrorist group — this is the problem, it's an idea," Regev said.

"For them, we [Jewish people] are not human," he said.

Peace horizon

Looking at the long-term horizon, the UN, EU, and US endorse a negotiated two-state solution, with Jerusalem as a shared capital, as the only way to lasting peace.

But talks between Israel and the PA stopped 10 years ago, shaping the status quo ante of 7 October.

And Regev warned there could never be new talks so long as Hamas posed a danger of more massacres.

"The only hope for a real peace process is if we complete the job, because as long as there's Hamas it's not going to happen. No Israeli will speak about any kind of political solution to the West Bank before we know there's no more threat," he said.

"One good thing that could maybe come from this [7 October] was that they broke the status quo. Hamas did that," he added.

"They [Hamas] did it for the bad, but if we succeed in our mission, maybe the people of Gaza can, once and for all, have a chance for a normal life, because there will be no terrorist group controlling them," he said.

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