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Israeli ambassador urges Korea to continue support for elimination of Hamas

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Israeli Ambassdor to Korea Akiva Tor speaks to the Korea JoongAng Daily during an interview held at the Israeli Embassy on Thursday afternoon. [PARK SANG MOON]
Israeli Ambassdor to Korea Akiva Tor speaks to the Korea JoongAng Daily during an interview held at the Israeli Embassy on Thursday afternoon. [PARK SANG MOON]

Israeli Ambassador Akiva Tor called on Korea to continue being a “a good world citizen”with its support for the elimination of the militant group Hamas in Gaza in an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily held at the Israeli Embassy on Thursday afternoon.

In his remarks, Tor said that the Israeli government has explained its war aims to the Korean government and has received support from both of Korea’s major political parties.

He also acknowledged diminishing international support for Israel’s war against Hamas, but emphasized that the Israeli government had been left with “no choice” after Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel, which killed 1,200 people, according to Israeli authorities.

While a cease-fire is currently in place between Israel and Hamas, Israeli bombardment of Gaza has killed over 15,000 people, according to the Hamas-run Ministry of Health in Gaza.

The following is a transcript of the Korea JoongAng Daily’s interview with Ambassador Tor. Comments have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Q. What message have you been delivering to the Korean government and the Korean people at large during this conflict, and what has been their response?

A. I’ve explained to the Korean government more or less the facts and Israel’s war aims, which are to end the rule and military capabilities of Hamas in Gaza and return of the hostages who have been taken there in captivity. We’ve also been very clear to the Korean government that Israel intends to pursue the war according to the laws of war and standards of Western armies and also that of the Republic of Korea Army. We take all possible action to avoid civilian casualties. Still, we’ve also warned the Korean government that we’re fighting an enemy who is deeply enmeshed in civilian institutions and infrastructure and behind civilians. The response of the Korean government has been largely positive. Korea quickly condemned the actions by Hamas and underlined Israel’s right to self-defense. We’ve received this message from the main political parties, the People Power Party and the Democratic Party. Our message to the Korean public is largely the same, but we face a structural challenge because seven weeks of fighting have taken place since the Oct. 7 attack. There’s been a lot of collateral damage, and significant numbers of Palestinian non-combatants have been killed, including young people and children. That’s on television all the time, whereas the Israeli hostages were hidden underground until recently, so the visceral images are from the Palestinian side. That creates a public diplomacy challenge, but we deal with it.

What role would you like to see Korea playing in this conflict?

Korea’s job is to be a good world citizen, which means supporting the eradication of Hamas as a political and military force in Gaza.

The Israeli military, officially known as the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), said it discovered North Korean-made weapons left behind by Hamas after its Oct. 7 attack on Israel. Have South Korean, Israeli and U.S. intelligence held consultations on the provenance of these weapons, and what findings can you share?

What’s been found are primarily North Korean-manufactured rocket-propelled grenades called F-7s and also 122-millimeter rockets, as well as other systems. What we don’t know is when they entered the Hamas armory. It’s possible that they’ve been in Gaza for a long time – maybe when Hamas took over Gaza in 2007, but that’s not known for certain. North Korea is selling weapons all over the world. It’s possible these weapons entered Gaza by way of a third party, such as Iran, which is a very strong supporter of Hamas and has good relations with North Korea. We don’t assume the weapons entered Gaza before 2007. The presence of North Korean weapons is a topic of great interest here in South Korea, but it’s not a fundamental strategic element of the current conflict. It’s worth noting that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has officially expressed his government’s support for Hamas, which is no surprise because anti-Zionism and anti-Israelism are part of the official propaganda and ideology of the North.

The IDF has come under considerable criticism for attacks on hospitals, schools, refugee camps and homes in Gaza. Could you explain these attacks?

We didn’t attack hospitals or schools. When we say refugee camps, we’re talking about Jabalia refugee camp, which is actually a small town of approximately 110,000 people. Jabalia is also adjacent to the northern border and is a hotbed of Hamas activity. We struck it and we killed a Hamas commander. To say Israel attacks refugee camps is a misstatement. Israel attacked military targets in a refugee camp the size of a small city.

A good part of the fighting, before the current truce came into effect, was centered around Al-Shifa Hospital. Israel and the IDF claimed that there was a command center under the hospital.  

We proved it.

There are tunnels and there are caches of arms, but the claims of the existence of a command center appear questionable from the evidence that’s been presented.  

We showed the tunnels, the rooms, the installations and the weapons. We also displayed the debriefs of Hamas prisoners who spoke clearly about Hamas activity underneath Shifa. We also showed video material of hostages being taken to Shifa on Oct. 7, and we showed the presence of Hamas fighters within Shifa on Oct. 7 and afterward. So, it’s true that we can’t show or even necessarily claim that the entire battle was directed from Shifa, but we showed clearly that Shifa was a major, important Hamas installation that could have well been evacuated. After all, Yahya Sinwar is believed now to be in the south of Gaza. We also showed a similar situation at Al-Rantisi Hospital. We showed the international press. The important thing is that we showed Hamas cannot be believed. They said there were no hostages taken to Shifa and they said they have no activity in Shifa. We’ve shown that to be clearly untrue.

The Israeli government has stated that its goal is the elimination of Hamas. Hamas and many others argue that its elimination is difficult, if not impossible. What criteria would Israel use to judge that it has adequately suppressed or eliminated Hamas?  

I agree with the premise of your question in that we can’t wipe out the Hamas ideology or erase support for Hamas from some elements of the Palestinian population. What we can do is bring about a situation where a rocket will not be fired from Gaza into Israel and Hamas leaders cannot come out of hiding from tunnels and rule Gaza. But none of that is achievable if we accept a permanent cease-fire, in which Hamas would remain in power, and no doubt rebuild their capacities with the support of Iran. I believe that it’s fully within the capabilities of the Israeli military to end Hamas’s rule and ability to attack from within Gaza. It won’t be easy because they’ve moved south, and we don’t have a large amount of international support, but it can be done.

If that criteria is met, does Israel have a plan for Gaza’s post-Hamas governance?  

We will not reoccupy Gaza, build settlements in Gaza or seek to rule Gaza on a permanent basis. But we also won’t allow a security vacuum, and we’ll likely maintain a presence in Gaza until the emergence of a stable regime there. Ultimately, it would be some form of Arab or Palestinian governance.

Does Israel have plans to participate in the physical reconstruction of Gaza? Some 40 percent of Gaza City’s housing stock is destroyed.  

I don’t know. Perhaps if we’re invited, but I’m not sure. I think the question will depend on what arises. I hope there will be a government that is friendly towards Israel. I hope we can go back to a situation of cooperation. Israel can do many different things for Gaza, such as employment. Before Oct. 7, 40,000 Gazan laborers were working in Israel every day. Many Gazans were being treated in Israeli hospitals, particularly for cancer. We were supplying significant amounts of Gaza’s electricity and water. I hope that Gaza will become a place that is self-sufficient. We envision a Palestinian government in Gaza and the West Bank that is a good neighbor. A good neighbor is one who is as prosperous as you are.

Is the Palestinian Authority a suitable candidate to govern Gaza if Hamas is defeated?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the U.S. government have both offered opinions about this, and I don’t think they contradict each other. According to the agreements signed between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the Palestinian Authority is the legal government of the Palestinian people. We’ve never retracted from that. But the problem is that the Palestinian Authority is very weak. In 1993, we signed the Oslo Accords, whereby Israel recognized the principle of Palestinian self-determination and national rights, and the PLO recognized Israel’s right to exist and to live in security. In 1994, we had the Gaza-Jericho agreement, which established the Palestinian Authority, Yasser Arafat’s election as president, and Palestinian governance in Gaza from 1994, which was realized in its full entirety with the withdrawal of Israeli settlements and military from Gaza. From 2005, Palestinians became entirely sovereign in Gaza, and they enjoyed a huge amount of goodwill and support from the international community. But by 2007, the PA lost power in Gaza to Hamas, forcing Israel and Egypt to place border and sea controls on Gaza. The Palestinian Authority has to be willing to take control in Gaza, but they haven’t said they are. They also have to be capable. I don’t know what the governance of Gaza will look like, but from the Israeli perspective, it has to be a government that is capable of delivering reasonably good governance to Gaza and not be hostile towards us.

Some, if not many, Palestinians express support for Hamas, a group that is classified as a terrorist group by the United States, Israel, Britain and the European Union. How can you reach a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without engaging with a group that represents the views of at least some part of the Palestinian population?

It’s a fair and good question. We don’t know to what extent the Palestinian people support Hamas. I don’t want to postulate on it because it can only lead us to negative places. There was a survey released on Oct. 6 that showed the majority of Gazans do not support Hamas, but now there are new polls that show the majority of Palestinians in the West Bank do support Hamas. What should we do when a people support a government that is committed to your destruction and happily carries out atrocities? I don’t want to sound bombastic, but that’s what happened in Germany in 1933 when Germans elected the Nazi Party. Does that mean Jews have to find a way to get along with the Nazi Party? I think that’s the situation we face. I think we have to work hard to change the views of Palestinians.

Do you think Israel is effectively accomplishing its goals in Gaza? Is the death count worth the expected goals? How do you think the deaths toll will affect prospects for peace with Palestinians?

Israel has two goals that don’t fully align. One of them is to defeat Hamas and the other is to release the hostages. Engaging in this process with Hamas with hostage releases is harming our capacity to unseat Hamas tactically and politically. The moment we stop fighting, it becomes very hard to garner support to resume. But there’s complexity in the world. Regarding the casualties, we don’t know the exact numbers, but let me grant you that it’s significant. We had 1,200 Israeli casualties on Oct. 7, and also military casualties in the fight against Hamas. What should we do? Do we leave them in place? We have a quarter million Israelis who are displaced from the entire region bordering Gaza that has been destroyed and the northern border with Lebanon. How are we going to get people to live in these regions if we leave Hamas in power? If we don’t remove Hamas, I have no doubt there will be an attack by Hezbollah from Lebanon.

Also, until what point should the Palestinian people bear with this? Shouldn’t they act with agency and remove Hamas? People are always talking about freedom, statehood, and rights for Palestinians. I don’t deny any of that. But the rights of statehood also require that the Palestinian people have agency and take destiny into their hands. They can’t simply be victims all the time. They also have to do something to achieve governance that will better their plight. Our problem until now has been that the experiment in Palestinian self-determination in Gaza delivered a Hamas government, and frankly, that’s unacceptable. It’s led to this current impasse.

That philosophically answers my question, but the question was more about how the war is affecting Palestinian perceptions of Israel. How can Israel convince Palestinians it also wants peace while also carrying out a war?

What is our option, really, when 3,000 people cross your border, kill 1,200 people, abduct 240 people and hide them under hospitals, in their homes and beneath their mosques? What is the expectation, that we not hunt them down and destroy them? It harms our image among Palestinians and in the world, but at the end of the day, a government that won’t defend its people has no right to be a government. Providing security is the first duty of government, above providing democratic rights. Also, what future does Gaza have if Hamas is not removed? Who would ever invest a single euro or dollar or won in Gaza if Hamas remains in power? In your interview with the Palestinian representative, he said the international community would disarm Gaza. Does he really believe that? Is there anyone aside from Israel that will remove Hamas from power in Gaza? We refrained from doing it for 16 years. We had major exchanges of fire with Gaza every two, three years, but we refrained from trying to unseat Hamas because we looked at the casualty count and collateral damage and decided it wasn’t worth it. So we got mediators like Egypt and just returned to our same, miserable and unhappy life of coexistence. But with Oct. 7, that was no longer feasible, as much as people, especially on the global left, would like to minimize or deny the scale of the Hamas atrocities.

A criticism that has been raised against the Israeli government is that it facilitated Hamas’s continued existence through payments from Qatar to Gaza. In hindsight, was this a mistake or a failure of foresight by Israel?
The argument is made that Israeli governments found Hamas’s presence in Gaza convenient because it divided the Palestinian national movement. I don’t think that’s a fair criticism because the policy of allowing Hamas to rule has been the policy of both the Israeli left and right. It was a reality we had to deal with. Hamas is both the civilian and military government of Gaza. We collect tax according to the interim agreement on behalf of the Palestinian government, which then transfers funds to schools in Gaza. Should we prevent that, because the schools are run by Hamas? Your question is a fair question, but you’re asking me, on the one hand, if the cost of removing Hamas is worth the damage being caused, but you’re also asking me why we didn’t do it earlier. We did it because we didn’t have another choice.

What actions does the Israeli government plan to take if Hamas releases all of the hostages, both military and civilian?  

I don’t have instructions from my government on this issue, but perhaps Hamas could surrender. Maybe Hamas will leave and go to Qatar. But we won’t allow them to remain in power in Gaza.

Many of the Palestinian prisoners released by Israel in the recent hostage exchange have never been convicted and were held in long-term administrative detention. Palestinians in the West Bank are also tried in military courts, as opposed to civil courts for Israeli settlers. Why do Palestinians accused of crimes face different treatment instead of normal criminal prosecution?

Administrative detention is not extrajudicial. It goes through a judge and it’s still approved by a court. It’s true that it’s not a normal criminal proceeding. It was also the long-term practice of the British government in its struggle against the Irish Republican Army. In fighting a terror organization, it’s not always easy to produce a civil standard of evidence, especially when you’re fighting a very bitter foe that carries out suicide bombings, and you have strong restrictions on means of interrogation. That causes a situation where even a democratic regime needs to be able to use administrative detention. We use it against people who are not our citizens. An Israeli Arab cannot be detained. Every citizen of Israel, whether they be Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Arab, Ashkenazi, or Mizhrahi, is under one law. Those who are not Israeli citizens are not under Israeli civil law.

But not all of the people who have been detained who were released in exchange for hostages have committed very violent crimes. Some of them are accused of throwing rocks. Should they be held in long-term detention for that?

Let’s put it this way. Administrative detention is not an ideal situation. But there are rocks, and then there’s Molotov cocktails and stabbings, and unfortunately, the people carrying it out can be 14, 15, 16 years old. It’s very unfortunate, but we must also deal with it. The situation is such that we can’t deal with it like juvenile delinquency, because it’s happening in an environment that supports and encourages violence. So am I happy about it? No, I’m not. Do I think it has legitimacy? Yes, I do. This is exactly the reason why people should rule themselves. When I reported for reserve duty, I had training periods and patrols in the West Bank. Every time I came back from patrols, I would wonder why we couldn’t solve this problem and ask what it meant for us to rule another people. But then I’d go back to work, and there’d be a bus bombing in Jerusalem, where 35 men, women and children were killed, and all of these families destroyed. Then I’d think, yes, this is unpleasant, but what choice do we have? If the Palestinian people and their governance were of a sort where we could really, really make peace, the great majority of the Israeli public would be in favor of a far-reaching settlement. That was the position of the Israeli public until the Second Intifada and the failure of the disengagement from Gaza. Israel elected governments that were willing to go very far to make peace. Ehud Barak offered 92 percent of the West Bank and all of Gaza. Ehud Olmert offered 95 percent and power-sharing in Jerusalem. Is the Israeli public there now? No, it is not. The Israeli public would not support a government that would enable a state that could easily come under Hamas domination and rule.

You’ve spoken about wanting a Palestinian partner for peace. The PLO renounced violence in 1993. Critics of Israel have said that despite this, the occupation has gone on. Why have Palestinians have not seen changes? Is that just on Palestinians? Is it their fault?

In human relations, it’s never one side’s fault. But I believe that a fair-minded view is that it’s primarily a problem on the Palestinian side. Hillary Clinton recently went on air and said her husband was present at the Camp David talks, where the Palestinians were offered a state with almost the entirety of what they asked for. They said no. I could be attending the reception of the State of Palestine on the 23rd anniversary of their independence. Is it Israel’s fault? I’m sure we made errors, but I don’t think it’s primarily our fault. There are Israelis and Israeli politicians who value the divine promise of the land more than they value peace, but they are marginal voices. They are not the majority of the Israeli political thinking.

So you say marginal voices, but Prime Minister Netanyahu was quoted in the Times of Israel that he has continued to lead the Likud party because he is “the only one who will prevent a Palestinian state in Gaza and [the West Bank].”

I’m not counting the prime minister as an extreme voice. He gave a historic speech in 2009 at Bar-Ilan University where he supported the establishment of a Palestinian state. But that was a while back, and things have taken a wrong turn.

But is the Israeli government still committed to a two-state solution?

At this moment, it’s hard to say. The Labor Party is looking for a two-state solution. Parties in the center are more in favor of strong Palestinian autonomy rather than full statehood. The difference between full statehood and autonomy is that Israel still has the ability to maintain strong security control in the latter situation. I’m not saying Israel will never go back to supporting full Palestinian statehood. But if you look at the Israeli mainstream and moderate Palestinian voices, the minimum that the PA is willing to accept exceeds the maximum that the Israeli consensual government believes it can safely offer. When we say a two-state solution, we’re usually talking about a Palestinian state on all territories captured by Israel in 1967, and I don’t think the Israeli public is quite there. We were there in the past, but not now. Israelis believe that there’s too great a likelihood that such a state would be a failed, radicalized state very similar to Gaza on the eve of Oct. 7. As Koreans know, the lack of a perfect solution doesn’t mean there aren’t imperfect possibilities. The PA rules all six major cities in the West Bank. Those areas can grow. They can be flourishing places, but they require reasonable governance.

Israelis argue that Palestinians are a security risk and should be treated as such, but Palestinians say that security risk is only present because of the way Israel was created and expanded and the current conditions in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. What can Israel do on its side to end this cycle?  

It’s very difficult for us to do it on our own, but neither are we free to not do it. There’s a statement in the Ethics of the Fathers in the Talmud: “Not upon you is all the work to accomplish, but neither are you free from trying to accomplish it.” I always thought Israel made an error in Oslo process by dropping people-to-people exchanges with Palestinians, which envisioned greater levels of contact between Israeli and Palestinian civil societies. Arafat canceled it because he saw it as a concession to Israel before normalization. Israel shouldn’t have conceded to that. When problems broke out on the senior level, we didn’t have ties to hold the societies together. I very much hope we’ll get to a place where these contacts can happen again. We still have to get rid of Hamas. We have to do it for ourselves. Ultimately, I think it will serve the greater good of the Palestinian people, even if they may not see it that way.

Many Israeli politicians have used language that appears to go beyond the Israeli government’s stated goal of eliminating Hamas and seems to call for the total destruction of Gaza and its residents. For example, IDF spokesman Daniel Hagari said on record the focus of the war is “on destruction and not accuracy,” while Likud politician Ariel Kallner said “nakba” is the “only goal.” How can these statements be reconciled with other official public Israeli statements that insist Israelis want peace?

I have to check Hagari’s statement. I think he meant we can’t fight this war with tweezers, which is how he should have said it. That being said, there are outrageous statements by Israeli politicians that I can’t defend, and I won’t even try to defend. It happens in Korea, too, every day. We have a democratic system with 120 members in the Knesset and a coalition government with a number of parties that are not mainstream. Some things are said that I think are wrong and can’t be justified. But they’re not the policy of the Israeli government. We are not trying to achieve a Nakba in Gaza.

How should Israel answer the Palestinian refugee problem created by its establishment?

If you want to understand the Israeli perspective, it’s that the 1948-49 Israeli War of Independence also caused a massive Jewish exodus from historic communities throughout the Middle East. If you look at the numbers of Jews from Arab lands who lost their property and citizenship, you’ll it’s a greater number than the Palestinian refugees. They came to an impoverished country that was dedicated to their rehabilitation. Approximately 45 percent of the Israeli population is from Arab lands. Our view is that what happened here is an exchange of populations, like what happened to Germans and Poles in Europe and India and Pakistan after World War II. The Palestinians would ask what’s that got to do with them. They should understand that Israelis also suffered a mass expulsion, and it’s time for everyone to make lives for themselves 75 years after the fact.

BY MICHAEL LEE [lee.junhyuk@joongang.co.kr]