Former Israeli Ambassador: 'Hamas Started This War'

NPR's Eric Westervelt interviews Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to the United States, about the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas.

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ERIC WESTERVELT, HOST:

Joining us now for the Israeli perspective is Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States. Welcome to the program.

MICHAEL OREN: Good to be with you, Eric.

WESTERVELT: As we've heard, the U.N. chief today called the third deadly shelling of a U.N. school sheltering civilians in Gaza, quote, "a moral outrage and a criminal act." A criminal act that - that's strong language. Can Israel continue its military operation in the face of such growing international outrage at the civilian toll?

OREN: Well, let me first say that the death of any civilian, whether Palestinian or Israeli, is deeply tragic, and whether the victim is a Palestinian or an Israeli, they're equally victims of Hamas. Hamas started this war. Hamas is using civilian population as a shield. It wants to maximize the number of Israeli civilians it kills. It wants to get Israel to kill the maximum number of Palestinian civilians so that the acts will evoke precisely those reactions from the U.N. Secretary-General and from the State Department.

WESTERVELT: The Israeli Army said today it was targeting Islamic Jihad militants on a motorcycle but they hit them right in front of the U.N. school. So, doesn't Israel have a responsibility to do more to protect civilians in one of the most densely populated areas of the world?

OREN: Israel has a responsibility to do the maximum within its capacity. Hamas - who use U.N. facilities - they will store rockets in U.N. facilities. We had three soldiers killed the other day in a U.N. medical clinic that was booby-trapped. They've fired out of schools. They've fired out of mosques for precisely this reason. Now this doesn't absolve Israel of the moral responsibility of doing the utmost to try to reduce civilian casualties. But ultimately, if Israel's being fired at from these institutions, Israel had no choice but to defend itself.

WESTERVELT: Israel says its ground forces are in the process of pulling back and redeploying in Gaza, but the Prime Minister last night said that the fighting will continue as long as necessary to stop Hamas's tunnel and rocket attacks. I'm wondering if you think Israel miscalculated what it would take to change the status quo in Gaza.

OREN: Well, I think there will be some hard questions asked after the fighting about whether our intelligence services adequately assessed the tunnel threat. I think there was an adequate assessment of the missile threat and it's extremely important - I believe, that this time, the cycle of violence is broken once and for all. That Israel be enabled in spite of all the pain to deliver a punishing blow against Hamas.

WESTERVELT: To break that cycle of violence, doesn't Israel eventually have to talk directly or indirectly with Hamas? I mean, until the Oslo Peace Accords in the early '90s, Israel and the West viewed the PLO as a terror group and refused to talk with them. Yet, there were these important back channels that brought about those accords and resulted in the PLO recognizing Israel and renouncing terrorism. Isn't it time to sit down with Hamas eventually?

OREN: Well, there's certainly a very fundamental difference between the PLO and Hamas. PLO was an avowedly secular organization that called for creating a democratic and secular state in Palestine. Hamas is a jihadist organization, which calls for an international caliphate. The problem today is that the Hamas leadership it self is very divided. Cease-fire talks were called for in Cairo several days ago. The Hamas delegation simply didn't show up. They couldn't agree on who they could send. Israel has no choice but to redeploy its forces after finishing tunnel demolition and continue to put pressure on Hamas until somebody in that organization steps up to the plate, shows up in Cairo and signs on to a cease-fire agreement. Until that happens, I frankly - I don't see any end to this.

WESTERVELT: Michael Oren is the former Israeli Ambassador to the United States. Thanks for taking the time with us.

OREN: My pleasure. Be well.

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