ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block. There were protests in Europe and the Middle East today, demanding an end to Israeli attacks on Hamas leaders, police, and infrastructure inside Gaza. Over the last three days, Israeli air strikes have killed nearly 350 Palestinians, including more than 50 civilians. At least four Israelis have been killed in Hamas missile attacks. The U.N. and Arab leaders are calling for a return to the cease-fire that expired this month. But the Israeli government has said the military operation, intended to stop Hamas from firing missiles into Israeli towns, could take time and even intensify. Israeli troops and tanks have been massing on the border with Gaza for what some expect to be a ground invasion. We have interviews with representatives from both sides today.
SIEGEL: Mark Regev is spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and joins us from Israel. Welcome to the program, once again.
Mr. MARK REGEV (Spokesman, Israeli Prime Minister's Office): Thank you for having me.
SIEGEL: First, a question about Israel's aims in Gaza. Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Parliament that Israel has - these are his words, "a war to the bitter end against Hamas and its branches." Does that mean that Israeli war aims are not just to end rocket attacks out of Gaza, but to end Hamas's control of Gaza?
Mr. REGEV: No, we have not articulated that as a war aim. Our operation is ultimately defensive. The idea is to better protect the population of southern Israel. As you know, some 300,000-400,000 people have been living under the gun of Hamas. People living in Israeli towns, rural communities, townships have been under the barrages of Hamas rockets from Gaza, not just for days, but for weeks, months and even years. And when Hamas tore up the cease-fire last week and escalated the crisis, we were forced to respond. But, our operation is defensive.
SIEGEL: What do you make of the phrase then, a war to the bitter end. What do you think the defense minister had in mind?
Mr. REGEV: I think we want to teach Hamas a lesson. I think we want Hamas to understand that firing rockets at Israeli civilians is going to hurt them much more than it's going to hurt us.
SIEGEL: A U.S. spokesman said today that an end to the violence depends on getting Hamas to agree to respect a sustainable and durable cease-fire. That assumes that there could conceivably be some agreement, presumably negotiated by a third party, whether it's Egypt of someone else. Is that, in Israeli eyes, is that a conceivable end to this conflict, or is that sort of diplomacy, in Israel's view, over and done with?
Mr. REGEV: Let's look at the facts. It was not Israel that tore up the cease-fire agreement that was negotiated through Israel. That was Hamas. Hamas publicly announced last week that the cease-fire was off, and then they escalated the violence. It wasn't Israel that once, again, that turned that possibility away. Israel wants this to finish, not to go back to square one. If we just go back to square one, then we'll have a crisis like this a month from now or two months from now.
SIEGEL: Can you imagine going back to a square in which Hamas is still the governing authority in Gaza?
Mr. REGEV: We have not articulated regime change as a goal of this operation. What we have said is this operation is designed to protect the people in southern Israel. We will agree to a situation where those hundreds and thousands of Israelis who live in the southern part of the country will no longer have to live in daily terror of incoming rockets.
SIEGEL: The U.S. spokesman, by the way, also urged, as you know, urged Israel to avoid civilian casualties in Gaza. The U.N. has said that, at least, 51 of the dead were civilians, and medics in Gaza said that eight children under the age of 17 were killed. Considering how densely populated Gaza is, don't you, obviously, put civilian lives at risk by bombing there?
Mr. REGEV: We make a clear distinction between Hamas and between the civilian population of Gaza. Ultimately, Gaza civilians are not our enemies. In fact, they're like us. They are victims of the Hamas regime. I don't think anyone understands why Hamas torpedoed the calm, and why Hamas escalated the violence bringing about this crisis. It's not just Israel that's been pointing the finger at Hamas. It's many countries in the Arab world, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Palestinian leadership. No one understands why Hamas has done this and why it has led to this escalation.
SIEGEL: Mark Regev, spokesman for the Israeli prime minister. Mark Regev, thank you very much for talking with us, today.
Mr. REGEV: Thank you for having me.
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