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Israeli, Palestinian Officials Outline Views on Gaza Battle

December 29, 2008 at 6:10 PM EDT
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As Israel continues strikes on Hamas targets in Gaza amid rocket fire, Israeli Ambassador Sallai Meridor and U.N. Palestinian Observer Riyad Mansour discuss the conflict.
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GWEN IFILL: We are joined now by a representative of one side of the conflict, Riyad Mansour, who is the Palestinian observer at the United Nations.

Mr. Ambassador, welcome.

RIYAD MANSOUR, U.N. Palestinian Envoy: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: Is it true or do you agree, as many Israeli officials have been saying today, that you are now in all-out war?

RIYAD MANSOUR: Well, we are facing a huge offensive by Israel against the Palestinian people in Gaza. And there is no justification whatsoever for killing and injuring about 1,800 Palestinians during the last two days.

Most of them are innocent civilians. The U.N. today, when they gave a figure of 64 among the dead, are only women and children. From the rest of the dead, there are a large number of civilians. And among the 1,400 injured, there is a large number of civilians.

The Israeli occupying forces are not following international law and responding in accordance with the law of proportionality. They cannot unleash a massive military power against what some of the Palestinians are doing from the Gaza Strip.

This action by Israel is criminal, is inhuman, is immoral, and it should be stopped immediately.

GWEN IFILL: Explain to me what Hamas was thinking, how you were thinking that the Israelis would respond when you began firing hundreds of Qassam rockets into Israel?

RIYAD MANSOUR: Well, let me just say that it is to our record that we organized unilaterally three cease-fires as Palestinians, two of them under the leadership of President Mahmoud Abbas before Hamas took over in Gaza, and the last one, it was through the approval of Hamas after they took over Gaza.

These cease-fires were always broken by continuous incursions by Israel and assassinations of Palestinian activists and other Palestinian nationalists.

And, also, Gaza has been living a situation of a huge prison for the last few months, in which 1.5 million Palestinians were deprived of the basic necessities of life. This kind of situation is unsustainable using the language of the secretary-general of the United Nations.

We need to, first of all, stop the fighting, stop the carnage immediately, and also to allow for sending humanitarian and economic needy things to the Gaza Strip through the opening of the — through the opening of the crossing borders, as the Security Council decided early on Sunday morning, so that we can allow for beginning the process of calm and dealing with the political situation to go back to the business of political negotiation for peace between us and our neighbor, Israel.

GWEN IFILL: Does the current situation help you toward that goal? Or are you now frozen in a situation with ever escalating violence, where you won’t be able to get back to that point where the borders are open again?

RIYAD MANSOUR: This current situation does not help the peace effort. For those who want to move in the direction of peace, they do not go and kill and injure 1,800 Palestinians in a span of 48 hours.

Palestinians upset with isolation

Riyad Mansour
U.N. Palestinian Envoy
I think that the peace that we want, the peace is, first of all, by stopping this carnage, by stopping this attack against the Palestinian people, and by bringing back the cease-fire that existed before.

GWEN IFILL: So I have to ask you again, Mr. Ambassador, what was the point of launching the rockets then, which theoretically gave Israelis the excuse to then act against you? What was the point of that? What did you hope to accomplish?

RIYAD MANSOUR: Our official position, the position of President Abbas, we do not see any value in doing that. But by the same token, it is criminal for Israel to retaliate in this manner and to keep 1.5 million Palestinian civilians in that miserable situation as it exists in Gaza.

What we need to do is not to go and unleash this massive firepower against the Palestinians, to kill so many of them and to injure so many of them. That option is an option of creating more resentment and hate and, therefore, fueling the option of the continuation of the conflict.

What we need to do, we need really to stop this fighting immediately, and to find political methods in order to move in the direction of calming the situation and also going back to the political process.

What we need is peace. We don't need more fighting. We need to put an end to occupation, as it was decided in the Annapolis process. And we need to allow the Palestinian state to be born, with East Jerusalem as its capital, so that we can live in peace and security with our neighbor, Israel.

That's what we need. We don't need more wars.

GWEN IFILL: Can I ask you about the U.S. role? President-elect Barack Obama was in the Middle East in the summertime, and he said -- and Ehud Olmert quoted him today as saying that, if someone was launching rockets at his two sleeping daughters, he would want to do everything he could, and he imagines that Israel would need to do the same thing. Do you expect to find help or hope in the new U.S. administration?

RIYAD MANSOUR: We hope so. But let me also say that, when you have 1.5 million Palestinians surrounded in a big prison, deprived of food and medicine, and to have 1,800 of them killed and injured, what should be done with them?

Let's use the same standard that President-elect Barack Obama suggested. Somebody attack you and threaten your family, you should defend yourself. That is also applicable to the Palestinian people.

GWEN IFILL: It doesn't sound like that's the path to the peace you're talking about, though.

RIYAD MANSOUR: No. Well, I think that the peace that we want, the peace is, first of all, by stopping this carnage, by stopping this attack against the Palestinian people, and by bringing back the cease-fire that existed before, and allowing all those people who are interested in peace and negotiation to have the upper hand, and to begin a process of dealing with this political situation, not by isolating 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza, but allowing them to live as normally as could be.

This way, you would isolate -- you would isolate extremist elements from having the upper hand. But if you go into the option of war, you are falling into the trap of those who are extremists and who are not interested in peace and interested in the option of the continuation of violence and counterviolence. It is the...

GWEN IFILL: I asked you about -- pardon me -- I asked you about the U.S. role. What about the role of other Arab nations, especially Egypt?

RIYAD MANSOUR: I think that Egypt is playing a constructive role. We are cooperating with Egypt in order to help us to put our Palestinian house in order.

And also Egypt is playing a very constructive Arab role in order that the Arabs can help us to not only to revive the cease-fire that existed before the beginning of this military action, but also to help us to regain Palestinian national unity.

We need to reunify Gaza in the West Bank so that we can move in the direction of peace with the new administration in Washington after President-elect Barack Obama takes office.

GWEN IFILL: Egypt controls at least one of those border crossings that you would like to see reopened. Is there any movement toward that that you see?

RIYAD MANSOUR: We believe that all crossing, the six crossing borders should be opened, as it was agreed upon in the agreement of movement and access, so that people can move in and out of Gaza and also goods can move in and outside Gaza.

This agreement was brokered through the effort of many parties, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. We need that to be put in place, and we are ready in the Palestinian Authority.

President Abbas is ready to send our troops to man all these crossings from the Palestinian side of the crossing between Gaza and Israel and also between Gaza and Egypt.

GWEN IFILL: And, finally, if I may ask you briefly, are you counting on international condemnation to cause Israel to back down in this? Or are you going to have to go this alone?

RIYAD MANSOUR: We are counting on the fact that there is an international consensus, a unanimous position by the Security Council, a position by the secretary-general of the United Nations, and almost all nations. All of them are saying this fighting should be stopped immediately.

The carnage against the Palestinian people should be stopped immediately, and addressing the humanitarian situation in Gaza should be dealt with immediately through the opening of the crossings. And then, after that, we would be allowed to think calmly of how we can find a permanent political solution to this tragedy of our people in Gaza.

GWEN IFILL: The Palestinian observer to the United Nations, Ambassador Riyad Mansour, thank you very much for joining us.

RIYAD MANSOUR: You're welcome.

Israel reacted to Hamas attacks

Sallai Meridor
Israeli Ambassador to the United States
The facts are that Hamas built a terror base in Gaza openly, broke a cease-fire that we had indirectly through Egypt, announced it. This is not something you have to be a rocket scientist to find.

RAY SUAREZ: Next to Margaret Warner and the Israeli view.

MARGARET WARNER: And for that, we go to Israel's ambassador to the United States, Sallai Meridor.

Mr. Ambassador, welcome.

What do you have to say to what the Palestinian observer just called this, which was criminal, inhumane, and immoral, were his words?

SALLAI MERIDOR, ambassador to the United States, Israel: Well, I would just talk about the facts, not about propaganda, and the facts are that Hamas built a terror base in Gaza openly, broke a cease-fire that we had indirectly through Egypt, announced it. This is not something you have to be a rocket scientist to find. This was an open statement and opened a barrage of rockets and mortars on Israeli civilians.

And the situation is that more than 500,000 Israelis are under -- not daily -- hourly rocket fire and mortar fire. And Israel has to protect them.

And I would ask any decent human being to put himself in the position of those Israelis who with kids are wetting their beds and ask themselves, what would I do? What would I expect my government to do?

MARGARET WARNER: But you heard what that -- the gentleman just said about this was disproportionate response, that is that Israel has launched a massive, massive military strike. Is that necessary?

SALLAI MERIDOR: Well, that's absolutely necessary, and it's not assaulting by Israel. Israel was attacked by Gaza, by Gaza-controlled Hamas.

Our prime minister went on Arab media to call on the Gazans to stop Hamas, to make sure that they are not allowing them to fire against Israel from Gaza before we had to take action.

And what we are doing is to bring about a situation where Israelis and Palestinians can live together in calm and hopefully in peace.

MARGARET WARNER: So what will it take from Israel's point of view for you to stop this offensive? What do you have to see? I mean, did the rocket attacks have to stop completely?

SALLAI MERIDOR: Certainly.

MARGARET WARNER: Is that the test? How will you know when it's time to stop?

SALLAI MERIDOR: I'm not suggesting now what are tests or not. I'm just thinking about what would you, would I, any other person would expect as normal, minimal normal conditions of living. This is not to be under constant fire by your neighbors, and this is next door.

You know, America, rightly, is going all the way to Afghanistan in order to prevent an attack on America. For us, our next-door neighbors are attacking our children day in and day out. And we have to make every effort to damage their ability to attack us.

MARGARET WARNER: What I'm driving at here is, what is the way out now? How does this and when does this end?

SALLAI MERIDOR: Well, the way out could be very easy. If Hamas decided to stop firing and to stop building this terror base backed by Iran next to Israel's border, there would not be any need for Israel to take any military action.

If I may remind you, we left Gaza. I heard the term "Israeli occupation" and the like. There is no Israeli occupation, definitely not in Gaza. Israel left Gaza in 2005, as I hope many people still remember, left nobody in Gaza.

And the Palestinians, instead of making Gaza into a beginning of a state, made it a terror base, attacking Israeli civilians every day.

Hamas based in civilian territory

Sallai Meridor
Israeli Ambassador to the United States
Israel is interested in calm, and Israel is interested in peace. There is nothing else that we are interested in. We don't have any political considerations; we don't have any grand regional aspirations.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me look ahead if I could. The U.N. secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, is calling for an end to hostilities on both sides. Is Israel interested in a cease-fire at this point?

SALLAI MERIDOR: Israel is interested in calm, and Israel is interested in peace. There is nothing else that we are interested in. We don't have any political considerations; we don't have any grand regional aspirations.

All we want is calm and peace for our people and for our neighbors. And for that to happen, we need to have the rocket fire stop. And we need to make sure that Hamas is not building, with the support of Iran, a terror base, attacking our people continuously.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, there have been -- your government has said you're not targeting civilians. By the U.N.'s own count, more than 60 civilians are among the dead. Won't that number grow as long as this air offensive continues?

SALLAI MERIDOR: Well, we are very sad for every civilian casualty. We are making every effort to avoid that.

Unfortunately, Hamas is purposely operating from, firing from areas with civilians. We are making every effort possible to minimize the damage to civilians. We are only targeting Hamas terrorist facilities, warehouses, installations, headquarters, training places. And if they do it from places that are nearby civilians, we are making every effort to minimize the damage to civilians.

But this is the asymmetry here. We are attacking some thousands or maybe 20,000 terrorists in Gaza. They are attacking discriminately 500,000 Israeli civilians. Israeli civilians are under attack; only Israeli civilians are under attack.

We are trying to attack -- or, sorry, to respond and to damage the activity of terrorists, trying to minimize the collateral damage to civilians.

MARGARET WARNER: But are you saying then that you don't think -- you think Israel has done all it can? You don't think you have responsibility for these civilian deaths?

SALLAI MERIDOR: We think the sole responsibility for the civilians' death are with Hamas. They are controlling Gaza. They are operating from where civilians are living. They are continuing to fire rockets.

And we are making every effort to minimize the damage to civilians for which we care very much. We don't want a fire this way or the other way. We want the Palestinians to live next to Israel with peace; we want them to have dignity; we want them to have prosperity. The only thing we want is to let our people live peacefully.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the Palestinians in Gaza say right now what they want is food and medicine for their hospitals. Do you think Israel has a responsibility to ensure that a lot of such supplies still get in?

SALLAI MERIDOR: We do that. We do that under fire...

MARGARET WARNER: They say not so.

SALLAI MERIDOR: They may say, but the facts are that, under fire -- and I think something that is hardly precedented and maybe hardly parallel, even today, where more than 70 rockets and mortars were fired from Gaza against Israel, where three Israelis were killed, including a woman going back from the gym, 39 trucks of such medical supplies went through the crossing into Gaza and ambulances went into Gaza.

And we continue to treat Palestinians from Gaza in Israeli hospitals, because we share the same values that I hope some day even Hamas will convert itself to share.

Israel sees 'compromises' ahead

Sallai Meridor
Israeli Ambassardor to the United States
This is why it is so important that Hamas is not allowed to continue with this way of terror. This is terrible for Israel. But if, God forbid, Israel was not reacting, the Arab societies and leaderships were next in line.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think that you can -- that Israel can achieve its objectives here without ground action of some sort?

SALLAI MERIDOR: We will take the actions that are needed to take, that every country would have taken under the similar conditions. So far, we have only taken air strikes, trying to minimize the damage to civilians. We will consider every option.

What we would love to see is that fire stops, that this terror base is not continued to grow. Then there would not be any need for Israeli defensive measures.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you, finally, looking ahead, a couple last questions. There were protests throughout the Arab world today. Mahmoud Abbas also denounced -- the Palestinian president, that you've been trying to have peace negotiations with -- is there a danger that this action by Israel will simply rally moderate Arabs, perhaps under pressure from their own populations, to Hamas' cause, which they have not been particularly supportive of?

SALLAI MERIDOR: Well, I think that we share the same interest, that Hamas will not grow stronger, that terror will not prevail, that people who are interested in incitement and in destabilizing the region will not have the upper hand.

And this is why it is so important that Hamas is not allowed to continue with this way of terror. This is terrible for Israel. But if, God forbid, Israel was not reacting, the Arab societies and leaderships were next in line.

MARGARET WARNER: And, briefly, what do you think this does now for the prospects of President-elect Obama to be able to kick-start any kind of peace process?

SALLAI MERIDOR: Well, you've heard -- I've heard with you before the statements that President-elect Obama made when he visited the area. We certainly hope that we will continue to work with him, as we worked with the current administration, to promote peace in the region.

There is nothing we want more. Israel is ready for, again, I think, some painful compromises, but people cannot even start to think how painful they are in order to reach peace, but peace cannot be built on giving in or giving up to terror. You have to fight terror on the one hand and work for peace on the other.

MARGARET WARNER: Israeli Ambassador Sallai Meridor, thank you so much.

SALLAI MERIDOR: Thank you.