(CNSNews.com) – Failing to respond to Hamas attacks because they were being launched from civilian areas would be a moral and operational mistake that would validate its use of human shields and “hand an enormous victory to terrorists everywhere,” Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said Wednesday.
Addressing reporters in Jerusalem amid talks in Cairo aimed at extending a 72-hour, Egyptian-brokered ceasefire currently in place, Netanyahu portrayed the Gaza conflict as a “test” for civilized nations – should terrorists be given immunity because they carry out attacks from schools, mosques or hospitals?
He defended the month-long military offensive against Hamas in Gaza, calling it justified and proportionate – even as he expressed “deep regret” for every civilian life lost.
Netanyahu opened the briefing by showing an aerial photograph depicting the location of 11 mortar attacks which according to the Israeli military were launched from the close proximity of a U.N.-run school; and another showing the location of a tunnel – designed “for the death squads to reach our people, kidnap and kill them” – constructed alongside a school and adjacent mosque and among civilian houses.
Israel accuses Hamas of intentionally launching attacks from civilian areas, counting on responsive fire harming civilians. It says Hamas also does this close to U.N. facilities, again knowing full well that Israel’s response will risk harming U.N. sites, including schools being used as shelters by displaced Palestinians.
Netanyahu said Hamas wanted a high death toll.
“They want civilian casualties. They use them as PR fodder. So it’s not that they don’t want them; they want them – and they pretty much say so.”
Netanyahu said it would be a mistake not to respond to terrorism because the terrorists are firing from civilian areas and facilities like schools or mosques.
“That would validate and legitimize Hamas’ use of human shields, and it would hand an enormous victory to terrorists everywhere and a devastating effect to the free societies that are fighting terrorism,” he said.
“If this were to happen, more and more civilians will die around the world, because this is a testing period now. Can a terrorist organization fire thousands of rockets at cities of a democracy? Can a terrorist organization embed itself in civilian areas? Can it dig terror tunnels from civilian areas? Can it do so with impunity because it counts on the victimized country to respond as it must, as any country would, and then be blamed for it? Can we accept a situation in which the terrorists would be exonerated and the victims accused?”
The tactic used by Hamas in Gaza, he said, was the same as that used by al-Qaeda, by Hezbollah in Lebanon, by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) in Syria and Iraq, and by Boko Haram in Nigeria.
“The test now is not merely the test for the international community’s attitude towards Israel – an embattled democracy using legitimate means against these double war crimes of targeting civilians and hiding behind civilians,” he said. “The test is for the civilized world itself, how it is able to defend itself.”
‘A license to kill’
More than 1,800 Palestinians were killed over the last month, according to figures provided by the U.N. and the Hamas-controlled Gaza health ministry. Palestinian and Israeli assessments of the proportion of combatants among the fatalities differ sharply. On the Israeli side, 64 soldiers and three civilians (one a foreign worker) were killed.
Netanyahu told the briefing that on the day when Hamas rejected an Egyptian ceasefire proposal which Israel had accepted – on July 15 – the death toll was standing at 185.
This week, he said, Hamas accepted “that very same proposal” and it went into effect on Tuesday morning.
“A full 90 percent of the fatalities in this conflict could have been avoided had Hamas not rejected then the ceasefire that it accepts now,” he said. “Hamas must be held accountable for the tragic loss of life.”
Asked whether Israel’s response had been “proportionate,” given the casualty figures, Netanyahu replied that he did.
In his thinking, he said, disproportionality was “not acting to defend your people and giving the terrorists a license to kill. I think that’s disproportionate and that’s wrong.”
“Let’s imagine your country attacked by 3,500 rockets,” Netanyahu said. “Your territory is infiltrated by death squads. What would you do? What would you demand that your government do to protect you and your family? You’d demand that and you’d be right because security, protecting the people, is the first obligation of any government.”
U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday implied that Israel had committed war crimes in Gaza over the past month.
“Let me be clear: Mere suspicion of militant activity does not justify jeopardizing the lives and safety of many thousands of innocent civilians,” he told a General Assembly meeting in New York. “International humanitarian law clearly requires protection by all parties of civilians and civilian facilities, including U.N. staff and U.N. premises.”