Global Security: Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)


11 FEBRUARY 2009

  Q1 Chairman: May I ask members of the public to switch off their mobile phones or put them on silent? To our witnesses, apologies for keeping you waiting. We had rather a lot of business to sort out, so we are a few minutes late in beginning. Thank you very much for coming. We felt that we had to have this session because of the recent tragic conflict in Gaza. We intend to have two sessions this afternoon dealing with the security and political issues and also the legal aspects. In this first session, we will look at the political and security issues with three witnesses. After that we will have a discussion about the legal matters. Could I ask each of you—Dr Bregman, Dr Albasoos and Ms Bar-Yaacov—to give a brief introduction for the record of your experience and background? We will then ask our questions.

  Dr Bregman: I was born in Israel in 1958. I served in the Israeli army for six years and took part in the 1982 war in Lebanon. I worked as an assistant in the Israeli Parliament, studied international relations in Jerusalem and London, and I have written three or four books on the Arab-Israeli conflict. I teach in the department of war studies at King's College.

  Dr Albasoos: I was born in the Gaza Strip of Palestine in 1975. I completed my education in law in Gaza and my PhD in peace studies at the University of Bradford in 2005. I have worked at the security office of the UN in Gaza and taught law and politics at the Islamic University of Gaza. For the past few months I have worked at the Palestinian Institute for the Study of Conflict Resolution and Governance.

  Ms Bar-Yaacov: I am Nomi Bar-Yaacov and I was born in London. I spent a lot of time in my youth and adult life in Israel and Palestine—originally working as a human rights lawyer defending Palestinians in the Israeli Courts. I joined the United Nations after the Oslo accords—I worked in the department of political affairs and the executive office of the Secretary-General. My main interest in international affairs and conflicts is the role of international actors and organisations in trying to resolve disputes, particularly the one that we are discussing today. After returning to the UK in 2001, I was originally a visiting fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies—then a research fellow and head of the Middle East programme there until three years ago.

  Q2  Chairman: Thank you very much. I will begin with a question for all three of you. Why did the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas end in December 2008?

  Dr Bregman: It was a vicious circle. The Israelis were unhappy that Hamas was in power in the Gaza Strip and were unhappy with Hamas firing primitive rockets into Israeli areas, towns and cities. Israel used control over the crossings into the Gaza Strip to put pressure on Hamas and to drive a wedge between the people of the Gaza Strip and the leadership—Israel wanted to create a situation where the firing stopped and the people of the Gaza Strip stopped liking their leaders.

  Dr Albasoos: The ceasefire was supposed to last for six months, after which it was meant to be extended to the West Bank. There was a commitment on both sides, Hamas and the Israeli Government, not to breach that ceasefire. That ceasefire was breached by the Israeli Government hundreds of times in the first five months. The commitment was not at the level it was supposed to be at. The crossing points between Gaza and Israel were supposed to be open to a certain extent to bring goods and supplies to the Palestinian people. Hamas and Israel were supposed to stop and halt all military activities. Unfortunately, on 4 November 2008, the Israeli army killed six Palestinians. I was leaving the Gaza Strip to come to the UK that same night. I remember when the Israeli army invaded the middle area of the Gaza Strip, killing six Palestinians. It was outrageous from their side to come and breach that ceasefire. I believe that Palestinian political factions, including Hamas, committed to that ceasefire and still have the intention to renew it in the near future, as soon as possible.

  Ms Bar-Yaacov: A quick word to add to what has already been said. I think that the ceasefire was breached by both parties. The incident that Dr Albasoos was referring to happened very close to the Israeli border with Gaza. The Israelis had added a condition to the tahdia, being concerned that Hamas was building tunnels to go under the Israeli border and kidnap more Israeli soldiers. The condition stated that if Hamas came within 500 metres of the border, they (the IDF) would attack and that is exactly what happened. It was within that context that Israel attacked the six people who were killed and Hamas responded with unrelenting rocket fire.[2] Egypt then tried to negotiate the extension of the tahdia and squarely put the blame on Iran, saying it blocked Hamas from renewing the tahdia. It is quite a complicated picture. I do not think that the ceasefire is a bilateral Israeli-Hamas issue any longer. Other parties in the region are involved and I think one has to take the role of those parties into account, not only in the analysis of the situation, but in trying to find a solution.

  Q3 Chairman: Did Hamas expect an Israeli response of the kind it had and did it in fact seek to provoke a full-scale Israeli military response?

  Dr Bregman: No, I do not think Hamas expected that. I do not think that Nasrallah expected it in 2006 in Lebanon. The force used by the Israelis in this operation was massive. We should analyse it in the context of what happened in Lebanon in 2006. The feeling in the Middle East was that the Israelis were unable or not strong enough to respond to provocations. What the Israelis tried to do in the Gaza Strip was to create a situation where not only Hamas stopped firing rockets into Israel, but Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas understood that it is better not to provoke the Israelis because it would be madness to touch them. I think Hamas, after the operation, admitted that it did not expect the Israelis to react in such a way. However, do not forget that this was the time of an election campaign in Israel and the leaders had to show that they are strong and reacting and responding to provocations.

  Q4 Chairman: Would you like to add anything to that?

  Dr Albasoos: In addition to that, Hamas and the Palestinian people did not expect the escalation of the war and the killing of many Palestinians. There was no balance of power at all. Each time an Israeli soldier or citizen was killed, at the same time, 100 Palestinian people were killed. Thirteen Israelis were killed during that war and at the same time 1,300 Palestinians were killed. In addition, there were about 5,000 wounded people and half of them will be disabled for the rest of their life. No one was expecting the escalation or the level of war which was launched against Gaza. Even the international community itself did not think that it would be at that level. What made it even worse was the silence of the international community. The UN could not move anything in order to stop this war and even the Arab states and the European Community were silent for most of the time and did not take any action to immediately stop that war.

  Ms Bar-Yaacov: I do think that Hamas was warned of the massive Israeli reaction, and Hamas knows Israeli politics very well. There is no justification in what I am saying for the nature and scope of the disproportionate action that was taken by Israel, but I think the warnings were there and the warnings were delivered squarely yet again by Egypt.

  Q5 Mr Pope: On the issue of the Israeli election, the leaders of the main political parties have all taken very hawkish stances during the campaign. To what extent do you think that the scale of the Israeli operation was caused by the correlation with the election date, which was looming? Perhaps people felt that for domestic political reasons they had to adopt a more hawkish stance in relation to Gaza.

  Dr Bregman: It is part of the story; we cannot ignore the fact that there was an election campaign. It was regarded in Israel as provocation and the Israelis felt they had to react to that. However, in my opinion it was not because of the elections that Israel went into Gaza.

  Q6 Mr Pope: I was thinking more of the scale of the operation than of the fact that they went into Gaza.

  Dr Bregman: The scale was this massive attack and the context was Lebanon. It was to show that, if you move into the Gaza Strip, if you fire, you fire. The memory of what happened in 2006 in Lebanon is the background and explains why the move into Gaza involved massive firepower.

  Q7 Mr Pope: I am interested that Dr Albasoos mentioned the, perhaps muted, reaction of the international community and in particular Arab states. In this country, our own Government have received criticism that they could have done more and that they could have condemned more. Do you think that there is anything the international community could have done which would have had an effect on limiting the Israeli action in Gaza? Also, linked to that, do you think that their reaction might have been partly to do with the declining days of the Bush Administration before Obama took over? Why do you think the Arab states were so quiet?

  Dr Albasoos: I think there was a plan in the six months before the war, on the Israeli side, to terminate Hamas. The operation was a culmination of the process to prolong the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip. There was conspiracy with Arab states because of the link between Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, especially in Egypt. Egypt has boycotted Hamas and there was no connection or relationship with Hamas, Arab states and the west. Since the election of Hamas in 2006, there has been a boycott, isolation, sanctions and siege imposed on the Gaza Strip. No one wanted to talk to Hamas. I think that the international community should have given Hamas a chance to talk—it was voted the main party of Palestinian society. The European Union, especially, should have engaged it in dialogue. The international community was silent because it did not want Hamas to stay in power; it wants to change that regime and bring Fatah into Palestinian authority.

  Q8 Chairman: Do you wish to add anything?

  Ms Bar-Yaacov: The timing of the war was between Christmas and new year, when most of those who act internationally for the west and across the Atlantic were on holiday—therefore, the reaction came very late. Israelis interpreted that as a massive green light. By the time Her Majesty's Government and other Governments reacted, Israel was in the midst of the operation, and by then it had already taken the decision to go into a ground operation and use massive force. To answer to Greg Pope's question directly, I think that more could have been done earlier on. Good efforts were made by Her Majesty's Government and the Security Council later on, and I commend that. However, I think that the problem was that Israel interpreted the earlier silence as a blank cheque to do whatever it felt necessary.

  Q9 Mr Pope: Finally, Dr Bregman mentioned Lebanon and what happened there two years ago. A lot of public opinion in this country has been shocked by the scale of the Israeli action. To what extent do you think that the scale of the operation in Gaza was a direct consequence of the difficulties that the IDF faced in Lebanon in 2006?

  Ms Bar-Yaacov: I think 100%. The planning was done on the basis of lessons learned from the Vinograd Commission, which was the investigation into what happened in Lebanon. Direct lessons were learned, and the number one lesson was that if an operation was to go ahead, it was going to go ahead with massive firepower. Israel did not have the problem in Gaza that it had in Lebanon, that it was trying to protect the Lebanese armed forces and only fight Hezbollah, but it did have the problem that Hamas, like Hezbollah, was acting from civilian neighbourhoods. Therefore, the decision was taken to go first from the air and then from the ground. Even the ground operation was, "We warn, we fire," and not to take too many risks, with the absolutely appalling toll that Dr Albasoos mentioned.

  Q10 Sir John Stanley: Dr Albasoos, you referred to 13 Israeli deaths. For the record, would you confirm that of those 13, four were Israeli soldiers killed by friendly fire—in other words, killed by Israelis—that, therefore, the number of Israeli deaths as a result of any sort of Hamas fire was nine, and that this contrasts with a total number of Palestinian deaths of, from the figures I have, 1,314, of whom 412 were children or teenagers under 18 and 110 were women? Would you agree with those figures?

  Dr Albasoos: Yes.

  Chairman: Thank you. I would like to move to the current situation after the conflict, or at least that phase of the conflict—sadly.

  Q11 Mr Moss: May I follow up on the answer to the previous question? On what authority can you quote those figures that you just gave us?

  Dr Albasoos: It is according to some human rights organisations in the field and international human rights organisations. The figures have been established and published in some newspapers and websites.

  Q12 Mr Moss: Some?

  Dr Albasoos: Yes.

  Q13 Mr Moss: There is no consensus on the figures?

  Dr Albasoos: I am not sure about the consensus.

  Q14 Mr Moss: Would anyone else like to comment on those figures?

  Ms Bar-Yaacov: The Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the UN humanitarian office in Jerusalem, publishes a daily sitrep. The figures are very close to those which have come out of that report: they are certainly over 1,300. The UN and the other international humanitarian organisations operating in the field report that a very large number are women and children, although I am not certain about the exact breakdown.

  Dr Bregman: I think we are talking about proportionality: the proportions of the number of Israelis and Palestinians killed. It is true that there were many on the Palestinian side, and very few on the Israeli side. It is a terrible tragedy, but the Israeli army is a professional army, and you expect it to know how to protect and defend itself in an operation, and the other side are—I do not like to use the word "gangs", but they are small groups operating within Palestinian-populated areas, so these are the results. You are going to have as a witness an expert on international law, and I am sure that he will say that, according to international law, proportionality is not about counting the number of bodies; the requirement for proportionality is that that you do what you do in order to achieve your military aim. Harry Truman dropped two atomic bombs on Japan. He killed 220,000 people, and thousands of people died after the operation as a result of all sorts of injuries. If you ask me, it was a proportionate response, because it put an end to the war. In the Israeli case, they wanted to put an end to Hamas bombing and to deter other enemies in the Middle East. If so many people died in the end, this is the result of the Israelis wanting to achieve this military aim, which is, according to international law, absolutely fine.

  Q15  Mr Moss: Who is currently exercising effective political authority in Gaza?

  Ms Bar-Yaacov: Hamas.

  Dr Albasoos: It is Hamas.

  Dr Bregman: It is Hamas, yes.

  Q16  Mr Moss: What influence do the Iranians have on what Hamas does?

  Dr Bregman: They have a very strong influence. They supply the weapons. The weapons that Hamas receives come from Iran. They go in aeroplanes from Iran to Sudan, then to the northern Sinai desert. Bedouins—the Tarabin tribe—smuggle these weapons through tunnels into the Gaza Strip. On the eve of the war, there were about 400 tunnels along this border of 11 km. It is a huge operation: it costs about £50,000 to build a tunnel, and the annual income from a tunnel is about £30,000. The tunnels are registered with Hamas, and if you register one with them, they will connect it to electricity. Through the tunnels come food, women, drugs and weapons. In this operation, the Israelis wanted to stop it.

  Q17 Mr Moss: And are these weapons still coming in right now?

  Dr Bregman: I do not know. The Israelis destroyed about 50% of the tunnels, but they expect the international community—Britain, the United States and the Europeans—to help them stop it.

  Q18  Mr Moss: There is talk that the next wave of weapons to come through will be an upgrade of the Iranian missiles. Is this true?

  Dr Albasoos: If I may say so, I completely disagree with what my colleague has said about the tunnels: 95% of the tunnels—according to some newspapers in the past few weeks—are used for commercial purposes. Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have been prevented from getting any food supplies, medicine or fuel from the Israeli side and from the Egyptian side, so the only alternative for them to survive and get their daily food and supplies is from the tunnels. Some 95% of those tunnels are for commercial purposes and about 5% are for Hamas.

    If there was an alternative—if the crossing points had been open between Gaza and Egypt, for example, or between Gaza and Israel—Palestinians would have no need whatsoever for those tunnels. In any case, if a ceasefire was reached, and the crossing points opened, I believe that Hamas and the Palestinian factions would completely close those tunnels because they would not need them any more. Palestinian society in Gaza, and Hamas as well, are looking for a decent life; they do not want to be engaged in any violent activities with Israel at all. All they want for Palestinians is a decent life without any conflict, but nobody has given them that chance. No weapons are coming from Iran. Yes, there is some understanding and co-operation in terms of financial support from Iran to Hamas, but I think that some of the weapons coming into the Gaza Strip are from Egypt itself.

  Ms Bar-Yaacov: I beg to disagree with Dr Albasoos on some of those points. I think the weapons have been coming from Iran. The Grad missiles that have landed in southern Israel have been analysed by military analysts, who concluded that, on the basis of intelligence, these missiles were Iranian. On that particular issue, I think it is quite conclusive. I think the tunnels are used both for commercial purposes and for smuggling all sorts of essential goods that the Palestinians in Gaza cannot get through the normal crossings, because of the embargo that has been in place since Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2007. However, I also think they are used for massive arms smuggling as well. I would not like to get into the percentage of what is coming through, because I do not know—I have not been in the tunnels and have not monitored them myself. It is very hard to know how much is commercial stuff, how much is basic goods and humanitarian aid, and how much is weapons, but I would definitely say that weapons are the key concern for Israel.

    On your initial question about the Iranian role, it is important to note the degree of support that Hamas gets from Iran, and I think that that is no longer questionable. However, we in the international community have to think hard about why that happened. When Hamas won the elections in January 2006 it was not a movement that was affiliated with Iran at all. It was an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood and all they really wanted to do was govern in Palestine. The Iranian links developed much later as a result of the international boycott, as a result of the Quartet's three conditions and as a result of the fact that even when the national unity Government was formed in February 2007 with the Mecca agreement, even then the international community—when I talk about the international community I mean the Quartet—decided not to talk to any of the Hamas Ministers, even those who gave up their seat for more minor roles. The entire policy of trying to isolate Hamas and not letting them govern has led to, among other things, their very strong links today with Iran. One has to examine whether that is potentially reversible, and if so, in what way, but today the short answer to your question is that the links are strong.

  Q19 Mr Moss: Did Tel Aviv achieve its military objective of fundamentally degrading Hamas's capacity to strike Israel? In other words, was it successful?

  Dr Bregman: The Israelis had two objectives: one was to degrade and deter, the other was to deal with the tunnels. As far as the first objective is concerned, it is hard to know; we will know if it worked only in hindsight. I think, though, that it is understood on the other side that they must be careful, especially now, as we are likely to see Netanyahu as the new Prime Minister of Israel and his aim is to topple Hamas. The second objective was to deal with the tunnels and the smuggling. I think that it worked partially. I think that the Egyptians will now try to stop it and, for example, deploy checkpoints in the Sinai desert. I think the international community is going to help with technology and so on, but eventually Hamas will have the weapons to fire at Israel. Part of it is self-production, because it is a liberation movement and that is its raison d'etre—Hamas must fight if it wants to rule, and so on. That is my view.

  Dr Albasoos: I might say here that there was no clear military objective to the operation. The only objective was that Israel wanted to cause as much damage as they could for the Palestinian infrastructure in Gaza and to Hamas as well. They failed—they completely failed—because Hamas is still functioning as it is in the Gaza Strip and even more strongly than before, because of its strong commitment to Palestinian society. The objective was to cause damage to Palestinian infrastructure and as we witnessed, a number of Palestinians were killed. How many houses, hospitals, mosques and institutions were destroyed? The cause of the operation is still, as the Israelis mentioned in the news—it was a media campaign, I believe—all about Hamas rockets. No one asked the question at the beginning: why was Hamas launching those missiles? Was it because of the occupation? Was it because of the siege on Gaza? And we have to ask ourselves whether Barak and Livni were, at that time, really planning to destroy the Palestinian infrastructure and to topple Hamas, or were they planning to win the election? It is not clear to anyone yet.

  Ms Bar-Yaacov: One element that I would like to add is that, according to the polls and according to what I am hearing on the ground—I am holding the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung/JMCC poll on how the war was viewed in Palestine, both in the West Bank and in Gaza—there is a clear and very sharp rise in support for Hamas, especially in the West Bank, as a result of the war. I can give the precise figures to the Clerk. It is also quite clear that President Mahmoud Abbas was weakened by the war, because he was seen, in a way, as collaborating with the Israelis by not taking any serious action against them. The rise in popularity of Hamas leaders in government and the decline and unpopularity of Fatah are an important direct outcome of this war. Another conclusion, which comes from a poll by one of the most reliable sources on Palestine—the Jerusalem Media and Communications Centre—is that the Palestinian public prefers resistance over negotiations. That is another alarming post-war trend: basically, they feel that they have achieved nothing through negotiations. More than 50% of Palestinians, according to this poll, no longer even want to negotiate but prefer resistance, including many former Fatah people. That is very alarming. If Israel manages to destroy some rockets and rocket launchers and gains international attention[3] over the tunnels and the smuggling, those are the main achievements, if you would like to call them that, that they can wave. I certainly think that the costs outweigh the benefits from the Israeli side. I also think that public opinion worldwide, Europe included—the Arab world most certainly—has turned sharply against Israel, even in places where there was more room for concessions or for pushing the Arab initiative forward. At the summit in Doha which the Qataris called in the middle of the war, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria declared the Arab peace initiative dead and put an end to—

  Chairman: We will come on to those areas.

  Ms Bar-Yaacov: But those are direct consequences of the war. Malcolm Moss asked what has been achieved in the war. I think that quite a lot of damage in the general region has been achieved in the war.

2   Note by witness: the parties they referred to are Syria and Iran. Back

3   Note by witness: and support Back

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