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 youDr Bregman,
Dr Albasoos and Ms Bar-Yaacovto 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 Palestineoriginally working as
a human rights lawyer defending Palestinians in the Israeli Courts.
I joined the United Nations after the Oslo accordsI 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
Studiesthen 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 leadershipIsrael
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.
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
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
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
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
talkit 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
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 holidaytherefore, 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
firein other words, killed by Israelisthat, 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 conflictsadly.
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
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 areI 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
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. Bedouinsthe Tarabin tribesmuggle
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 communityBritain, the United States and the
Europeansto 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 tunnelsaccording to some newspapers
in the past few weeksare 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 alternativeif the
crossing points had been open between Gaza and Egypt, for example,
or between Gaza and IsraelPalestinians 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
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 knowI
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
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 communitywhen
I talk about the international community I mean the Quartetdecided
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'etreHamas
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 failedthey completely failedbecause
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 newsit was a media campaign, I believeall
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 groundI am holding the Friedrich
Ebert Stiftung/JMCC poll on how the war was viewed in Palestine,
both in the West Bank and in Gazathere 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 Palestinethe Jerusalem
Media and Communications Centreis 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
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 includedthe
Arab world most certainlyhas 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
Note by witness: and support Back