Since it started following Hamas’s unprecedented attack on Israel on 07 October 2023, killing 1,200 people and taking 240 hostages, some of whom have been released, the ongoing Israel-Gaza conflict has gripped the world. According to the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza more than 20,000 Palestinians including more than 7,000 children have been killed by Israel as of 21 October 2021. Israel has been accused of “indiscriminate bombing” and the use of “starvation as a weapon” in Gaza. In the wake of these developments, Addis Standard’s Abdi Biyenssa sat down with Israel Ambassador to Ethiopia Aleligne Admasu and the deputy chief of mission Tomer Bar-Lavi, delving into the complexities of the ongoing Israel-Gaza conflict.
AS: How do you respond to mounting criticisms against Israel of deliberate destruction of Gaza and indiscriminately targeting its civilian population as well as arising humanitarian concerns?
Ambassador Aleligne Admasu: International law affords us the right to self-defense, and while we remain committed to its principles, allegations of Israel’s deliberate destruction and indiscriminate civilian casualties are vehemently denied. The loss of civilian lives is undeniably tragic. Following the conclusion of the operation, a thorough investigation will be conducted to address any instances where Israeli soldiers may be held accountable for misconduct and civilian casualties in Gaza. This commitment underscores our adherence to a higher standard of conduct.
Throughout the course of the conflict, our military forces have implemented a diverse range of strategies to minimize harm to civilians. This includes disseminating informational messages and distributing flyers to residents in the Gaza Strip, providing guidance on evacuating targeted areas affected by terrorist activities, and outlining clear directions to access designated evacuation routes.
Hamas strategically employs educational institutions, places of worship, international organizations’ premises, and other sanctuaries to shield itself from Israeli military assaults. These compounds are exploited by Hamas for their covert military operations, an assertion substantiated by compelling evidence we possess. Notably, the upper echelons of Hamas leadership clandestinely operate from the intricate network of tunnels beneath hospitals and non-military facilities, thereby further exacerbating the challenge of effectively targeting their operations.
We facilitated the movement of humanitarian aid through Egypt, with over 200 trucks delivering essential supplies daily. These provisions include food, clean drinking water, sanitation facilities, and other vital necessities, all aimed at reaching the civilian population in Palestine.
Deputy Chief of Mission Tomer Bar-Lavi: In the context of the ongoing conflict, it is imperative to acknowledge the tragic loss of innocent lives. The principle of proportionality is central to our approach in addressing the situation. We must consider the gravity of the actions taken by Hamas, including acts of violence and abduction, and respond in a manner consistent with international law.
Our operations in Gaza are guided by the principles of military necessity, distinction, proportionality, humanity, and honor as outlined in international humanitarian law. It is crucial to emphasize that our actions are not indiscriminate and are conducted with utmost regard for minimizing unnecessary suffering.
However, it is exceedingly challenging to avoid civilian casualties when Hamas deliberately uses women and children as human shields. In any armed conflict, collateral damage is unfortunately inevitable. Our military targets are carefully selected based on legal analysis, with the aim of minimizing harm to civilians. We are deeply concerned about the number of deaths occurring in areas under Hamas control.
According to the reports of Hamas affiliated Gaza health ministry, no combatants have been killed, while we have confirmed the deaths of a significant number of combatants. It is imperative to assess the true number of combatant casualties at the conclusion of the war. Our primary objective is to target combatants, not civilians. Regrettably, civilians have been impacted in some instances, including by rockets fired by Hamas that have also landed in Gaza. This has resulted in civilian casualties as well.
AS: But, Israel’s closest allies, including the US, have expressed concerns that Israel is indiscriminately bombing Gaza, and Israel’s military actions are now beyond self defense. How do you respond to that?
Deputy Chief of Mission Tomer Bar-Lavi: As US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, it’s striking that we don’t hear more people demanding that Hamas end this conflict – stop hiding behind civilians, surrender and release the hostages. Israel’s critics ignore the agency of Hamas and choose to blame the victim of terrorism – Israel – rather than its perpetrator, Hamas. As Secretary Blinken said, “any other country in the world faced with what Israel suffered on October 7 would do the same thing” in working to eliminate the terrorists who pledge to carry out similar attacks again and again.
The United States supports Israel in its just battle against genocidal terrorists whose only goal is the elimination of our country and the murder of our people. And it is important to emphasize that Israel’s operations are as targeted and proportional as can be in such a difficult situation, in which Hamas uses its people as human shields and fights from within populated areas. Our objectives remain clear: returning our hostages and eliminating the threat to our people.
AS: Israel stand accused of using starvation as a Weapon of War in Gaza with many civilians deliberately denied access to food and water in violation of international humanitarian law. How do you reconcile this?
Deputy Chief of Mission Tomer Bar-Lavi: We are continuing to improve humanitarian access to the people of Gaza, including the recent opening of an additional border crossing (the Kerem Shalom crossing), this one from Israel itself, to improve the procedure for transferring humanitarian aid. Aid includes hundreds of trucks coming into the Gaza Strip every day, stocked with food, medical equipment, water and more.
In addition, tens of thousands of liters of fuel have been allowed to be delivered into Gaza. Unfortunately, Hamas has been stealing significant parts of this aid, preventing it from reaching the residents of the Gaza Strip and instead going to Hamas operatives and their terror tunnels. Even as we recognize this horrendous fact of Hamas aid theft, we continue to facilitate the transfer of humanitarian assistance to the people of Gaza, because some of the aid does reach innocent civilians. Israel’s war is with Hamas, not with the innocent people of Gaza.
AS: From Israel’s point of view, how is the ongoing militarized conflict going to end and, what are the prospects of lasting peace between Israel and Palestine?
Ambassador Aleligne Admasu: Despite our commitment to peaceful coexistence, our neighbor, Palestine, has been infiltrated by the terrorist organization Hamas, which has consistently engaged in the indiscriminate firing of rockets and missiles, as well as the clandestine operation of subterranean passages. Israel has long provided essential resources such as water and electricity to Gaza, despite its control by Hamas. Moreover, we had facilitated the employment of over 20,000 Palestinians within our borders. Regrettably, our hand has been forced into military action in response to this unprovoked aggression. It is important to note that war was not our desired course of action.
The tactics employed by Hamas are consistent with its ultimate goal of the eradication of Israel and its historical roots. The recent onslaught of attacks by Hamas has been unprecedented in its magnitude, prompting the development of advanced defensive measures such as the Iron Dome to safeguard innocent civilian lives. While our commitment to peaceful coexistence with Palestine remains steadfast, the presence of Hamas poses a significant impediment to this objective. Given the terrorist nature of Hamas, akin to that of IS, negotiations with such an organization are not feasible.
Israel has successfully established normalized relations with Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Morocco and efforts are now underway to further normalize relations with Saudi Arabia. However, certain countries are providing training and weapons to Hamas, which is complicating the Israel-Palestine relationship. Thus It is imperative that Hamas be disarmed in order to bring an end to the ongoing conflict.
Deputy Chief of Mission Tomer Bar-Lavi: At present, we find ourselves in conflict with Hamas. Regrettably, a ceasefire with this organization was in place until 06 October. We are acutely aware of Hamas’s status as a terrorist and genocidal entity, with an avowed commitment to the annihilation of Israel. Despite this, we had entertained the possibility of maintaining a semblance of stability, a form of deterrence. We had been fostering a project that saw twenty thousand Gazan civilians crossing into Israel daily for employment.
However, Hamas made the deliberate decision to violate the ceasefire, launching a brutal attack on Israel and perpetrating a heinous massacre. Consequently, the Israeli forces have been compelled to engage in warfare against Hamas and its affiliates, to dismantle their military and administrative capabilities and thwart any further assaults. Our efforts also extend to securing the release of our one hundred and thirty-seven hostages, including twenty women and two children, one of whom is an infant just ten months old. Our preference is for peaceful coexistence with our neighbors. However, when faced with a neighbor intent on extermination, self-defense becomes imperative.
Our current military operation aims to dismantle the Hamas government, neutralize its military capabilities, reduce the terrorist threat emanating from the Gaza Strip toward Israel, and ensure the liberation of all individuals held captive in Gaza. Israel’s objective does not entail the occupation or control of the Gaza Strip. The ground operation is limited in duration and strictly complies with the international legal norms governing armed conflicts.
AS: You stated the objective of Israel’s military operations is to depose Hamas and destroy its military capabilities, but there is growing pressure on Israel for a ceasefire. What is your stance?
Deputy Chief of Mission Tomer Bar-Lavi: Again, where is the pressure on Hamas to end this conflict? They began this war with a genocidal attack on our people on October 7, after breaking a ceasefire that was in place at the time. They massacred, raped and took hostages in an attack that targeted the people of Israel for elimination – the bloodiest day for the Jewish people since the Holocaust. They have repeated again and again that this is only the beginning, and that they plan to carry this type of attack out on an even larger scale in the future.
Those who are pressuring Israel for a “ceasefire” are asking for Hamas to win this war, because a situation in which Hamas retains power in Gaza and maintains the capability of carrying out more attacks on Israeli civilians is a victory for terrorism and spells a dark future for civilians on both sides of the border. In order for the fighting to stop, Hamas must surrender, give up the hostages and leave the Gaza Strip. This will spell the beginning of a better future for Israel and the Palestinians.
AS: You mentioned “dismantling the Hamas government”, you also stated that Israel doesn’t intend to control the Gaza strip. How does Israel see post-Hamas Gaza?
Ambassador Aleligne Admasu: Within the West Bank, a cohort of Palestinians, led by the esteemed President of the State of Palestine and Palestine National Authority, Abu Mazen, currently presides. Should they express their willingness to assume control, we stand prepared to transfer governance of Gaza to Abu Mazen’s capable leadership or to Arab nations. Moreover, we are prepared to relinquish administration to the United Nations. Subsequently, our unwavering commitment to harmonious coexistence aligns with the establishment of a post-Hamas order, fostering an atmosphere of tranquility and cooperation.
We have successfully executed a strategic evacuation plan, relocating Israeli citizens from 20 villages to establish a distinct separation and enable them to lead autonomous lives detached from Israel. These individuals now possess their own designated territory, clearly demarcated by both the ocean and the boundaries of Israel. They enjoy the freedom to traverse the West Bank and return through Jordan without hindrance. Moreover, they have established their own security forces and police, utilize their unique language, and operate independently from Israel, effectively governing themselves.
The current leader of the West Bank, Abu Mazen, who assumed leadership after the esteemed Yasir Arafat, demonstrates remarkable flexibility in his approach to governance. However, certain Arab nations exert undue pressure on him, discouraging him from engaging in constructive negotiations and instead advocating for a more divisive approach. Tragically, Hamas has targeted and assassinated several influential figures within Abu Mazen’s inner circle. It is important to acknowledge that an ideological divergence exists between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank. While Hamas remains resolute in its determination to eliminate Israel, Fatah adopts a more moderate stance.
The path to a harmonious coexistence with Israel necessitates the liberation of the Palestinian populace from the influence of Hamas. The Palestinians are acutely aware of the devastation wrought by conflict, and as such, must resist Hamas’ utilization of civilian infrastructure for militant activities. However, the repercussions for such opposition are dire, as Hamas is known to exact severe reprisals against dissenters.
Deputy Chief of Mission Tomer Bar-Lavi: Israel has consistently demonstrated a willingness to seek compromise and engage in peaceful negotiations, even before its establishment as a modern state. This commitment to peaceful resolution is exemplified by Israel’s offer of a compromise during the Camp David peace process in 2000. At that time, Israel presented a proposal that would have granted Palestine 95 percent of the territory they sought for their own state. Regrettably, the Palestinian leader at the time, Yasir Arafat, did not respond with a counteroffer but instead abruptly left the negotiating table and subsequently initiated the second intifada against Israel.
Most Israelis believe in making territorial concessions for peace. In 2005, Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip, evacuating 8,000 people and soldiers. This decision was accepted by the Israeli public, reflecting a willingness to compromise for the sake of peace. However, it’s important to note that Hamas, with its ideological goal of Israel’s destruction, poses a significant challenge to the peace process.
Coexistence with Hamas is untenable. Leaders of Hamas residing abroad have made threats of retribution and annihilation against Israel. Should Hamas be afforded the opportunity, they would not hesitate to engage in indiscriminate attacks resulting in civilian casualties. Nonetheless, Israel is committed to negotiating with any country that recognizes its right to exist. The desire for peace is deeply ingrained in Israel’s approach, and it is always willing to make compromises in order to achieve lasting peace in the region.
AS: Setting the conflict aside, How is Israel dealing with concerns about the marginalization of Ethiopian Jews a.k.a ‘Beta Israel’?
Ambassador Aleligne Admasu: Before our return to Israel, Jews were scattered worldwide, including those who had lived under colonization in Israel. Jewish communities in Africa, such as those from Egypt, Eritrea, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, and Ethiopia, and others from Europe and America, returned to their respective homelands. I returned from Ethiopia four decades ago. It’s essential to note that Ethiopian Jews, the “Beta Israel”, are not marginalized in Israel, despite challenges akin to those faced in Ethiopia.
Israel is a democratic nation in the Middle East. Immigrants from across the globe bring their unique cultures, with Beta Israel incorporating elements of Ethiopian culture. Jews from Yemen, India, and Ethiopia, for instance, retain their distinct appearances reflective of their origins. It is crucial to dispel misconceptions, as our Ethiopian Jewish community advocates for the celebration of black beauty.
In contrast to certain Jewish communities, however, the Ethiopian Jews exhibit lower educational attainment. This has exposed them to a degree of marginalization and insufficient representation. When compared to European Jews, there is a notable education gap. In Ethiopia, education is more accessible in urban centers, and the majority of Ethiopian Jews reside in rural areas, contributing to a lower overall educational profile.
The Israeli system is recognized for its meritocratic principles, ensuring that individuals’ educational achievements are not predetermined by their background. Ethiopian Jews in Israel experience an improved standard of living, with the majority owning their homes. The meritocratic nature of the system encourages individual effort and provides open opportunities for advancement. AS
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