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Fmr. Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami: “It Was Wrong” For Israel to Invade Gaza

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Israeli forces have invaded the Gaza Strip for the first time since withdrawing ten months ago. Israel says it launched the raid to recover a soldier captured by Palestinian militants. The strikes came just hours after Fatah and Hamas agreed on a document to implicitly recognize Israel within its 1967 borders. We go to Gaza to speak with Palestinian physician Dr. Mona El-Farra and we get comment from former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami and Palestinian activist Ali Abunimah. [includes rush transcript]

Israeli forces have invaded the Gaza Strip for the first time since withdrawing ten months ago. Israel says it’s launched the raid to recover captured soldier Gilad Shalit. Shalit was captured in a Palestinian operation on Sunday. The raid began after Israel rejected Shalit’s captors demand for the release of all Palestinian females and Palestinians below the age of eighteen in Israeli prisons. Israel opened the attack with a series of air strikes on three bridges and Gaza’s main power station. The attack left the power station in flames and knocked out electricity in most of Gaza City. Palestinian militants have reportedly taken up defensive positions around Gaza–setting the stage for a potential firefight with the invading soldiers.

The strikes came just hours after officials close to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Hamas had agreed on a document to implicitly recognize Israel within its June 1967 borders. Hamas leaders later denied this is the case. Hamas lawmaker Salah al-Bardaweel explained: “We said we accept a state [in territory occupied] in 1967–but we did not say we accept two states.” The deal follows weeks of negotiations between Fatah and Hamas leaders over the terms of a unity government. Palestinians hope the agreement will bring an end to the crippling international aid freeze imposed since Hamas swept to power in elections earlier this year.

  • Ali Abunimah, a writer, speaker and founder of the website Electronic Intifada. He is author of the book “One Country: A Bold proposal to end the Israeli-Palestinian impasse” which will be published by Metropolitan Books this Fall. He joins on the line from Amman, Jordan.
  • Shlomo Ben-Ami, has held a number of positions within the Israeli government, including Foreign Minister, Minister of Public Security and Member of Parliament. His latest book is “Scars of Wars, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy.” He speaks to us from Madrid, Spain, where he is currently Vice-President of the Toledo Peace Center.
  • Dr. Mona El-Farra, a physician and community activist in northern Gaza. She was at the hospital that received many of the victims of Friday’s bombing. She runs a blog titled “From Gaza, With Love”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined on the telephone from Spain by Shlomo Ben-Ami. He’s the former Foreign Minister of Israel and a former member of the Israeli Knesset. He wrote the book Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy. We’re also joined on the line by Ali Abunimah, founder of Electronic Intifada, electronicintifada.net, speaking to us from Jordan. Ali Abunimah, can you talk about the latest news?

ALI ABUNIMAH: Yes. Good morning, Amy. I’m here in Amman, Jordan, and watching the situation very closely. And it reminds me of the eulogy that Rabbi Yakov Perin gave for Baruch Goldstein, the Israeli settler who murdered 29 Palestinians in Hebron in 1994. He said, “One million Arabs are not worth a Jewish fingernail.” And this kind of racism is clearly on display in the Israeli reaction to the capture of its soldier in the Gaza Strip by the Palestinian resistance. In fact, last week here in Amman, the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said explicitly that the lives of Israeli Jews are more important than the lives of Palestinians.

And we see that reflected also in the world reaction. Is it not astonishing that the entire world knows the name and face of the Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, while the hundreds of Palestinian children held in Israel’s dungeons, not to mention 10,000 adult prisoners, thousands held without charge and trial, abducted from their homes in the middle of the night by Israeli occupation forces, remain nameless and faceless before a silent world?

And I want to say that it’s very deeply painful to me as a Palestinian that while Palestinians in Gaza are demonstrating, the families of prisoners are demonstrating to urge the resistance not to release the soldier until their prisoners and hostages held by Israel are released, that the Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas rushed to condemn the legitimate conventional military operation carried out by the resistance and rushed to send his security forces to hunt for the captured soldier on Israel’s behalf, when never once in history has he deployed his forces to protect and defend his own people against Israel’s daily massacres. It’s becoming unavoidable to many Palestinians, if not most, that Abbas is engaged in open collaboration with the occupation.

And a final point, that as far as Israel is concerned, it is rapidly becoming a failed state, unable to learn any lessons from its past. It’s now repeating in Gaza and the West Bank all the mistakes of its invasion and occupation of Lebanon. And I believe that if it doesn’t drastically and dramatically change course, it will self-destruct within a decade, perhaps taking everyone else in the region with it. It has become an apartheid pariah state, and its leaders are deluded in thinking that they can bludgeon the indigenous Palestinian population, who are now the majority between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, into submission and servitude.

I call on brave Israelis to understand the lessons, which brave white South Africans understood, and to engage in a voluntary process with Palestinians of dismantling completely, starting today, the system of racist laws, walls and settler colonies that are imprisoning both people in perpetual and endless and escalating bloodshed. It needs to stop now.

AMY GOODMAN: Ali Abunimah speaking to us from Amman. Let’s turn to the former Israeli Foreign Minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami. Your response?

SHLOMO BEN-AMI: Response to what?

AMY GOODMAN: To what Ali Abunimah just said?

SHLOMO BEN-AMI: No, no. I’m not going to respond to that. If you have any particular question with regard to this operation, with regard to the abduction, with regard of the political situation on the ground — I’m not going to go into that wider analysis about South Africa and what have you.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, why don’t you start with what is happening right now?

SHLOMO BEN-AMI: Well, what seems to me that is happening right now is that Israel is trying to change the equation that was established by those who took the soldier as hostage. Their equation was one of releasing the soldier for prisoners in Israeli jails, and Israel seems that the present government is not ready for that, although previous governments did negotiate and Rabin negotiated. Even Sharon negotiated to exchange prisoners. This government doesn’t seem to be politically confident enough to negotiate, and therefore, they want to change the equation to one that means that we will withdraw from Gaza or we’ll stop — we’ll interrupt this incursion if the soldier is released.

Is this going to work? I’m not sure it is going to work. I am afraid that these kind of operations tend to have a dynamic that one knows how they start, one doesn’t really know how they end. I hope it doesn’t end in the collapse of the Palestinian Authority, in the collapse of Abu Mazen, and the rest of it, because the situation is difficult enough without this modicum of stability and legitimacy that is given by the current president and the prime minister is destroyed. So I really expect that things will be controlled in some way.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think that the Israeli government should release prisoners?

SHLOMO BEN-AMI: Should release prisoners? Well, I think that these kind of situations require a sort of political approach, rather than military approach. You see, it’s not that easy also to say that they should release prisoners, because that means that every Israeli citizen is a candidate to be taken hostage. The dilemma is not simple. I am for a political solution. These might perhaps take the form of, say — that the quid pro quo from the point of view of Israel would have to be not to persist in the suffocation, the economic suffocation, of the Gaza Strip, the boycott to the Palestinian Authority. These kind of quid pro quos maybe we can reach through some sort of third party mediation. I’m not sure that exchanging prisoners will work, simply because this means exposing every Israeli citizen to being taken hostage.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think the Israeli government was wrong to reinvade Gaza?

SHLOMO BEN-AMI: Well, yes. I think it was wrong to do that, because — if only for the reasons that affect the stability of the government itself. You see, the government is engaged now in this idea of disengagement from the West Bank. If the they invade the Gaza Strip, what they are going to show to the Israeli opinion and to public opinion, as a whole, is that disengagement, unilateral disengagement, doesn’t work. If you do not coordinate things, either with the Palestinians or through a third party — the Quartet, for example — disengagement creates a frontline in a state of war, in a permanent state of war. And therefore, you’ll have to reoccupy the territory, so what’s the point in disengaging in such a manner? I think the government is exposing the fallacies of its own policy by occupying or reoccupying the Gaza Strip.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to Gaza right now, where Dr. Mona El-Farra is. She is a physician in northern Gaza, a health development consultant for the Union of Health Work Committees in Gaza. What is the situation on the ground right now, Dr. El-Farra?

DR. MONA EL-FARRA: Since the early hours of the morning, the Israeli army did not stop their sonic bombing against the Gaza Strip. They started the operation last night, 10:30. They targeted the infrastructure of the Gaza Strip. Two-thirds — the main target was the electrical power plant. And now, two-thirds of Gaza Strip are with no electricity.

The population mood is angry, anxious, worried, scared. But despite all this, demonstrations are going in the streets against the release of the soldier, especially by the families of the political prisoners. This is the opinion, feeling.

And I have a comment here to say. There’s no balance of power between the Israeli army and the militia or the resistance movement here in Gaza. Israeli knows that very well. So what’s happening in Gaza now is collective punishment. I don’t understand, why to destroy the infrastructure? Why to deprive the population from the electricity? It is collective punishment. This will not bring the soldier back.

What will bring the soldier back: negotiation, understanding the rights of Palestinian people to exist. The disengagement plan, for example, and the wall in the West Bank, all these measures Israel did to guarantee its security, it did not, anyway, because the security of Israel is not harmed by the resistance or largely harmed by the Palestinian resistance.

The mood is very bad in Gaza and angry. You can see twenty — 2,000 people last night demonstrated in the middle camps of Gaza Strip against the release of the soldier, or the release of the soldier in swap of the political prisoners. People feel they are humiliated and Israel and the world wants us to kneel down. This is the mood of the people here now in Gaza.

AMY GOODMAN: The issue of collective punishment, Shlomo Ben-Ami, former Foreign Minister of Israel, your response to that?

SHLOMO BEN-AMI: I am not favorable to collective punishment. But, you see, one needs to see the conditions on the ground. When Israel withdraws from the Gaza Strip and then you have every day Kassam missiles being launched against an Israeli township, what would you do then? What is the answer to that? I mean, either to reoccupy the land or to open political negotiations, but that’s, for example, President Abbas or even Ismail Haniyeh — control all the factions in Gaza, do they control Islamic jihad? Do they control the martyrs of Al-Aqsa? So you have here a very serious problem.

We need sometimes to descend from the heights of the conceptual or even of the moral ground to see what can be done on the ground. So the problem is that the government has been trying all kind of ways to stop the launching of Kassam missiles. I’m sure that Ismail Haniyeh is not interested in these attacks. I’m sure that Mahmoud Abbas is not interested. Do they have the capacity to stop it? They don’t have it, because the political system or the hierarchy of command, the chain of command, is invertibrate. So what is Israel to do in such a situation?

AMY GOODMAN: Ali Abunimah, your response?

ALI ABUNIMAH: Well, it’s amazing, the rhetoric of Shlomo Ben-Ami, who knows much better. I’ve heard him expose the situation more eloquently, even on your show, Amy. He knows very well that this isn’t about Gaza. This is about Israel’s relentless assault on the Palestinians throughout the Occupied Territories, its expansion of colonies and settlements in the occupied West Bank, and its announced annexation plan, which even he has criticized. But he’s not against the annexation of the West Bank. What he believes, he’s deluded in believing, is that Palestinians — they can find Palestinians who will sit and agree to the annexation of Ma’ale Adumim, Ariel and all the settlements around the Occupied Territories.

What he has to realize and what all Israelis have to realize is that the age of colonialism has ended. He said, Shlomo Ben-Ami said, that the so-called convergence plan, the unilateral annexation plan, is Israeli’s attempt to preempt the world recognizing that Israel is now a Jewish minority ruling over a Palestinian majority.

He wants to talk about the Quartet and the U.S. and doing things on the ground, because he doesn’t want to talk about the big picture, that what is driving the conflict is the radical inequality between the Jewish minority, that rules all of the territory between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, and the disenfranchised Palestinian majority, who are paying the price for the luxury that Israel lives in, for the high incomes of Israelis, for the settlements, for the swimming pools, for the security in Tel Aviv and in Hertzliyah and in Jaffa and in Haifa and in Akka, that Israelis live a normal life all around the country, except in Sderot, where they experience the few dozen customs. But what pays for that normality for Israelis is the total disenfranchisement and dispossession of the majority population. And Israel believes that it can hide them behind walls, in ghettos, as was done to Jews in Europe in the 1930s and ’40s.

And he should be a brave Israeli. He should speak out against the occupation. He should speak out against the apartheid laws inside Israel, not just in the West Bank. He should condemn the law that says that an Israeli citizen can marry anybody in the world, except a Palestinian, that an Israeli who marry a Palestinian has to leave the country. This is a new style of apartheid. It is even, as some have said, a new kind of Nuremberg law. And I’m waiting for Shlomo Ben-Ami to live up to his claimed liberal and progressive credentials and condemn these things and join the struggle to liberate not just Palestinians, but also Israelis, from this devastating system of oppression and apartheid, which will kill all of us —

AMY GOODMAN: Let me put that question to Shlomo Ben-Ami.

SHLOMO BEN-AMI: As I told you, Amy, I really thought we were going to talk about the current crisis, as it is.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I think —

SHLOMO BEN-AMI: I, of course, do not deny things that I say about the convergence plan. I dedicated my political life to trying to reach a settlement, that essentially meant disengaging from Palestinian lands, having the fully fledged Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. These are my credentials. It’s not books that I’ve written. It is things that I’ve tried to do.

Now, we have a political crisis there, and we are trying to see how we solve it. My suggestion is, as I said before, not to invade, try to find a different quid pro quo, and that is, stopping the suffocation of the Palestinian economy in Gaza, improving relations with the Palestinian Authorities, and moving to a political phase. This is my solution to the current crisis. I don’t want to go now into the wider picture. I have said things, I have written things about it. I don’t want to repeat it right now. And frankly, I am in the middle of a business lunch. I had the idea that we are having a very short interview.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let me just ask you —

SHLOMO BEN-AMI: And now I am interrupting the whole reunion.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m very sorry. I just want to ask you one last question: the strikes coming just hours after officials close to Mahmoud Abbas said Hamas had agreed on a document to implicitly recognize Israel within its June ’67 borders.

SHLOMO BEN-AMI: Yeah. I think it is a very important document. I think that if indeed they sign it, this will at least stem the decline into a potential civil war between Palestinians. I think it is in Israel’s interest to have a united Palestinian polity, that is, that subscribes to a shared political plan. I would have preferred them to simply subscribe to the Arab Peace Initiative. I think they have departed from that legitimacy, or from that inter-Arab legitimacy, and created their own. I don’t see the logic of it. I think that the Arab Peace Initiative has a worldwide legitimacy, and simply subscribing to it would have meant a lot, in terms of Israeli public opinion. As it is, I think it enhances the unity between Palestinians, but it creates a condition that, I am afraid — and again, I’m not speaking theory and not generalities — I’m afraid that the current Israeli government will not see that as a starter.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you for being with us, Shlomo Ben-Ami, former Israeli Foreign Minister, Member of Parliament, book Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy. He is speaking to us from Spain. Thanks for joining us. We will come back to this discussion after break with Ali Abunimah, as well as Dr. El-Farra.


AMY GOODMAN: We are talking to Ali Abunimah, founder of Electronic Intifada; and Dr. Mona El-Farra, physician in northern Gaza. Ali Abunimah, your response to this document, that at least those close to Mahmoud Abbas said that Hamas had agreed to recognizing Israel within the ’67 borders.

ALI ABUNIMAH: I think if tomorrow Ismail Haniyeh and Khaled Meshaal and all the other leaders of Hamas get down on their knees and say, “We want to give up everything to Israel and accept a state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip and accept to cancel the rights of Palestinian refugees and to abandon our rights to resist the occupation in any form whatsoever,” it would make no difference whatsoever, Amy, because the stumbling block, the fiction, here is that it’s the Palestinians who have rejected this. The Hamas leaders, like the leaders of Fatah, have said many times that they’re willing to talk to Israel, they’re willing to recognize Israel. The Hamas leaders have said, “Okay, we don’t want to do that in advance, because the PLO did that in advance during the Oslo Accords and got nothing in return. So we do it on the basis of reciprocity.”

The problem, Amy, is that Israel is still completely 100% committed to colonialism. That is why Israel is continuing to seize land in the West Bank, to build new settler colonies every day, to pave Jewish-only roads in the West Bank, to build the apartheid wall, to treat Gaza as a giant prison. The reason that Israel pulled its settlers out of Gaza, as Shlomo Ben-Ami has said before, is to create the fiction that Israel is not ruling over a Palestinian majority, exactly as South Africa created the Bantustans to try and fool the world into thinking that Blacks had their rights within these so-called independent homelands and didn’t need to have rights within the South African state. The same trick will not work in Palestine, as it did not work in South Africa.

And the world needs to recognize that. And I’m thrilled that there’s a growing civil society movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions that does. This is what is going to put pressure on Israel to end the colonial practices, no matter what document is signed between Hamas and Fatah. That will make no difference if there is no active worldwide opposition and resistance to Israel’s colonialism. That is what will make a difference.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Mona El-Farra, I wanted to give you the last word. When we last spoke — Shlomo Ben-Ami was talking about the shelling of Kassam, and we last spoke, Dr. El-Farra, when you were at the hospital after the children, the families were — the explosions on the beach in Gaza and a number of members of one family killed. What is the latest on that situation?

DR. MONA EL-FARRA: Okay. First, just quickly, I totally agree with the analysis of Mr. Abunimah, totally agree with his analysis. Israelis did not try in the excuse of the soldier. The plan was ready to invade Gaza — not physically invade it. Anyway, Israel did not invade Gaza. They are controlling us from outside.

Regarding the Kassam rockets, I would like to know how many people really were injured by these Kassam rockets. As I told you before, the balance of power is towards Israel. These Kassam rockets and the other rockets is just very primitive devices. It is just a show of — protesting against what’s happening here. But seriously, it doesn’t hurt Israeli security. What was your question?

AMY GOODMAN: The latest on the family that we last spoke to you about, that member — a number of members of the family, of the Galia family, who were killed at the Gaza beach, and the conflicting reports. Human Rights Watch and you, yourself, as a doctor in the hospital, saying that it was as a result of Israeli shelling, and the Israeli military saying it was Palestinian bombs.

DR. MONA EL-FARRA: Yeah, yeah, okay. This is a big joke for me, and I’m totally, like all of us here in Gaza, totally convinced by the fact that it was Israeli shelling. I met the doctors who received the injured. I saw the injured myself, and the site of injuries show that it was not from mines. Minefield injuries are different from shelling injuries. The site of the injuries were in the upper side of the bodies. Beside, the shrapnel we found, it was the same like what we received in the case of Jabalia two years ago. So no matter what Israel is trying to say — it is Palestinian mines — this is not acceptable for us. And you forget all this. We don’t need to add a new crime to the Israeli crimes. Even if this was from the Palestinian side, we have a large record of Israeli assault against Palestinians.

And just I need somebody to explain to me, why this sonic bombing? And now, since 3:00 in the morning until now, we are under heavy sonic bombing from the sky. This, I consider, collective punishment, and it will not secure Israeli security. It is just they are humiliating us as Palestinians. They want us to kneel down. And I agree with Mr. Abunimah, what Israel is doing now sort of revives the idea of colonialism in the area.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us, Dr. Mona El-Farra, physician, community activist in northern Gaza, and Ali Abunimah, who is founder of electronicintifada.net. We thank you both for joining us.

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