I thank the Chairman and members of the joint committee for giving me the opportunity to speak to them and give them the Israeli perspective on Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip. Let us start with the background and the chronology of events.
On 12 June three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped from near their school. For two and a half weeks the whole of our country was led to believe they were alive. A wide-scale search for them took place in large areas of Judea and Samaria, concentrating mainly on the area of Hebron. From day one Israel stated Hamas, a terrorist organisation and also the regime which rules the Gaza district and forms part of the relatively new unity government of the Palestinians, was behind the abduction of the three innocent youngsters. For a long time the Hamas leadership denied categorically that it was responsible for this cowardly terrorist action. Only two weeks ago did it finally admit responsibility. First, a Hamas politburo member living in Turkey, Saleh Aruri, took credit for the abduction and killing of the teens; then a few days later the movement’s leader, Khaled Meshaal, also acknowledged that it was involved. Again, Israel was right. On 30 June the bodies of the three youngsters, Naftali Frenkel, Gil-Ad Saher and Eyal Yifrach, were discovered. During these weeks the launching of missiles continued from the Gaza district towards civilians in the south of Israel. After the discovery of the three bodies, the situation escalated, with growing numbers of rockets and mortar shells. For a long time Israel tried to contain the situation and responded with minimal force. It told Hamas that quiet would be met with quiet.
By 8 July, 330 missiles had been fired into Israel. On that day, after several meetings of the Israeli Cabinet, it was decided to retaliate forcefully in order to deter Hamas and the other terrorist organisations. On 14 July the Egyptians proposed a ceasefire to the two parties. This was accepted by Israel but rejected categorically by Hamas. On ten further occasions in the following weeks, with much appreciated Egyptian mediation, the two parties were offered ceasefires. Some of them were described as humanitarian ceasefires, but all of them were accepted and respected by Israel.
All of them were rejected or violated by Hamas. Hamas rejected or violated ceasefires 11 times. Hamas wanted war. During this cycle of violence, the world has witnessed an asymmetric war. Consider what we find on the two sides of the conflict. On one side we have a democracy, a country of law which respects the freedom of its citizens, Jews and Arabs alike. Israel is a democracy in which freedom of speech, freedom of the press and all the other rights enjoyed by people in the free Western world are respected. We do not execute opponents of the government in the street, nor do we throw them from rooftops. We do not torture and kill people because of their sexual orientation. In our cities, women are equal to men and can wear what they like without fear of being stoned by a mob if they wear the wrong clothes or look at a man they are not married to. Israel is a country that has contributed so much to humanity in many fields, including medicine, high-tech, agriculture, environmental science, cinema and literature. On the other side is a terrorist organization that claims to have won the election in 2006. Unfortunately, my colleague H.E. Mr. Ahmad Abdelrazek will not freely express his views and those of the Palestinian Authority regarding the freedom and fairness of these elections. Hamas and the other terrorist organisations have never had any respect for human life. All the members will remember how, during the second intifada, just over a decade ago, they sent their young men and sometimes even women to blow themselves up in buses, restaurants, shopping malls and coffee bars, with only one mission - namely, to kill as many Jews as possible. I deliberately say "Jews" and not "Israelis" because anyone who reads the 1988 charter of Hamas will notice the chapter calling for Muslims to kill any Jew, wherever they are. Almost 1,200 Israeli citizens were murdered during the second intifada and to my knowledge not one Oireachtas Deputy asked for a moment of silence in their memory.
During the latest operation in Gaza, Hamas and the other vicious radical Islamist terrorist organisations spared no effort in committing a double war crime. They launched rockets, missiles and mortar shells towards Israeli cities, towns, villages and kibbutzim with the clear purpose of killing our civilians, and they did so while hiding behind civilians, by using their civilians as human shields. And what was the reason for all this aggression by the Islamist terrorists of Hamas and Islamic Jihad? That is a very hard question, because it has no logically understandable answer.
My colleague the Palestinian ambassador talked about occupation. Nine years ago, in the summer of 2005, Israel withdrew unilaterally from every square metre of the Gaza Strip. Not even one Israeli soldier or civilian remained behind. It was the first time in the history of the Palestinian people that they were given a piece of land on which to build a sovereign, independent entity. They received much support from the world, huge sums of money from the UN, the Americans, the EU and other countries. The evacuating Israeli civilians left behind $14 million worth of high-tech greenhouses which could have been used to develop their agriculture, to bring back the flower and fruit export industry for which Gaza had once been famous. Instead, they destroyed them a few months later. The next year, 2006, elections were held in the Gaza Strip and Hamas came to power. During and after this process, they got rid of their Palestinian Authority opponents by throwing them from high rooftops, or disabled them by shooting their knees off.
Given that, as I have explained, Gaza has not been under Israeli occupation since 2005, what other reason could there be for the aggression of Hamas and the others?
Wait a minute: Hamas claims it was the occupation. What it states is that Israel, since its establishment in 1948, has been occupying Arab or Muslim land. In other words, as long as Israel exists, Hamas has an excuse or a reason from its point of view to fight it. During the 50 days of Operation Protective Edge, a war that Israel did not want and was dragged into, a large number of people lost their lives. The very nature of this war, with terrorists hiding behind and shooting at civilians on the other side, created a very unbalanced moral equilibrium.
For Israel, any loss of life was a tragedy and Israeli leaders expressed their sorrow on many occasions at the loss of the lives of innocent civilians. The Palestinian civilians of Gaza are not our enemies and we did not want them dead or to be hurt. For the Israeli Defence Force, IDF, the only role of which by definition is to defend Israel, each time a civilian was killed unintentionally was seen as a failure. Our army checks itself all the time, on a regular basis. For the terrorists, on the other hand, any loss of life is a victory. I do not need to explain why the death of an Israeli civilian is seen as a victory, but, in addition, Hamas sees every killing of a Palestinian woman, child or elderly person as a great success, a PR victory. This is because the coverage on our television screens day after day showed little about the war, apart from civilians being rushed to hospitals.
Now we come to the numbers of the dead. The figures for the casualties in Gaza put about by the media in this and many other countries relied on Palestinian sources, since no others were available. To judge by this data, one would get the impression that during these long days of violence, not a single man, woman or child died of a disease or by accident and that nobody was killed by a misfiring Hamas rocket or by one of the one fifth of rockets fired which landed within Gaza itself. Looking at the figures, one would think not even one man died from old age. It seemed that every person who had lost his or her life was a victim of Israeli fire. If it were not for one Italian journalist, we would not know that the nine children killed at the Shati refugee camp on 28 July were victims of Hamas rockets that blew up on the launch pad. The fact that even though males aged between 17 and 30 years make up 10% of the Gaza population, their proportion among the dead was 44% did not seem to raise an eyebrow in the media. These men were, of course, Hamas terrorists. It is quite strange because it shows a lack of interest on the part of news editors in doing real investigations and giving their readers and audiences a real understanding of the conflict.
During the recent cycle of violence in Gaza beginning on 8 July, 4,396 rockets were launched at Israeli civilians. Had Israel not invented, developed and used our anti-missile IRON DOME system, the number of Israeli civilians dead or wounded would have been in the hundreds, if not thousands. If Hamas had not diverted the billions of euro it had received for the people of Gaza into building bunkers under mosques, hospitals and schools and digging miles of terror tunnels to open under Israeli villages and kibbutzim in order to kidnap civilians as hostages or commit mass murder and if it had not armed itself with many thousands of rockets but had instead built bomb shelters for its people, there would have been far fewer casualties, but then it would not have been Hamas, cruel terrorists that they are.
There are people in this country who believe Hamas, a terrorist organisation which is designated as such by the European Union and the Americans, was fighting for the rights of Gazans. If that was the case, why would it not allow its people any freedom? Why did it fire from their schools and hospitals and dig tunnels under their homes?
Why has it not called for elections since 2006? Why does it permit its leader to live in five-star hotels in Qatar while his people suffer misery? It is very likely that at least some of those executed in the street by Hamas, as so-called collaborators with Israel, were in fact people who raised their voices against being dragged into war by Hamas.
If Hamas cared about its own people as much as Israel does, it would have spared the Gazan people the terrible damage they have suffered. During the period of war with the Government of Gaza - Hamas is the Government of Gaza - Israel permitted 4,178 persons to enter Israel from Gaza and almost 3,000 persons to exit to Gaza. More than 5,500 trucks filled with goods and humanitarian supplies entered Gaza via the Kerem Shalom border crossing since 8 July. Some 967 tonnes of medicines and medical supplies were delivered in these trucks. All this happened during a state of war while an average of 100 missiles a day were being launched at Israel from Gaza, some of them to the very same crossing border I just mentioned.
However, that is not all. During the war, the IDF went a long way to try to avoid the deaths of innocent people. It sent messages through radio and television; it sent e-mails and called the homes of people asking them to stay away from buildings it was about to target. The high moral standards exercised by the Israeli Defence Force prevented the loss of many more Palestinian civilian lives. The decorated British colonel Richard Kemp, who was the commander of the British forces in Afghanistan, has stated that "Israeli forces have taken greater steps than anyone else in the history of warfare to save the lives of innocent civilians".
So what is next? Israel has not violated the ceasefires even once. As long as the terrorists do not attack us, the calm and tranquillity will continue. As we have been saying from the beginning of the summer, if Hamas wants quiet, all it has to do is to stop shooting. Now - what a surprise - since the latest ceasefire was announced last week and the terrorists stopped shooting, it is all quiet now.
The next stage is to help the Gazan people to rebuild the houses and infrastructure ruined during the operation. Israel welcomes the call by the European Union foreign ministers to demilitarise Gaza. As long as Hamas and the other terrorist organisations can retain their arms and control the materials, goods and money coming into Gaza, there will be no lasting rehabilitation for the area because Hamas will not allow it.
In one of the rallies, which took place near the Israeli embassy a few weeks ago, some foolish people raised a sign saying "Free Gaza". The last thing Hamas is interested in is freedom as Hamas like IS, Islamic State, oppresses Christians, persecutes homosexuals and violates women's rights. Indeed, it is about time for Gaza to be free - free of Hamas.
Before I conclude, and since I have mentioned the demonstrators, I must say that some of their slogans are familiar to Jews from this very continent only 70 or 80 years ago, while other placards demonstrate only ignorance, an unbalanced approach and a hatred for the only state for the Jews in the world. Others who so proudly call for my expulsion from this country show no respect for democracy, for dialogue and for the hospitality for which this country is so famous. To those people, who represent a minority - a vocal and hostile group who nevertheless do not represent the people of Ireland - I have nothing to say. They are a shame and a disgrace to this country. These words of mine come from a person who is ready for dialogue at any time and with anyone, since that is what democracy is all about. Unlike this minority, the majority of the people of Ireland support Israel and the thousands of e-mails, letters and telephone calls of support the embassy received are true evidence of the deep understanding and empathy, which many people in Ireland have towards Israel.