THE WEST BLOCK
Episode 5, Season 13
Sunday, October 15, 2023
Host: Mercedes Stephenson
Lt.-Col. (Res.) Peter Lerner, Israel Defense Forces Spokesperson, Tel Aviv, Israel
Brig. Gen. (Res.) Amir Avivi, Israel Defense and Security Forum Chairman, Jerusalem
Zaha Hassan, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Fellow, McLean, Virginia
Mercedes Stephenson: The Middle East on the brink, Israeli mourning, and anger with a vow of never again. At the same time, Gazan civilians are fleeing for their lives.
I’m Mercedes Stephenson. The West Block begins now.
Israel prepares to move in on Hamas, fears about a wider war.
And in Gaza, civilians trapped with nowhere to go.
One week after the unthinkable across cities inflicted by Hamas against Israeli civilians, the country is ready for war.
Earlier today, I spoke with IDF spokesperson, Lt.-Col. Peter Lerner. He revealed that the Israeli Special Forces have been conducting raids across the border that are still going on and that they believe 126 have been taken hostage. Those secret special operations raids are continuing.
Lt.-Col. (Res.) Peter Lerner, Israel Defense Forces Spokesperson, Tel Aviv, Israel: There are special raids that are ongoing in close proximity of the perimeter. Indeed, they are targeted in trying to locate bodies, perhaps of victims. There are still people that are unaccounted for as a result of the massacre.
Mercedes Stephenson: As concern grows about the possibility of a northern front opening in the war, the Lt. Col. also had a warning for Hezbollah.
Lt.-Col. (Res.) Peter Lerner, Israel Defense Forces Spokesperson, Tel Aviv, Israel: There have been skirmishes, including fatalities even this morning as an anti-tank guided missiles have been fired at Israel with fatalities this morning. And so Hezbollah is definitely heating up the situation. I would recommend that Hezbollah look very closely how we are dismantling Hamas’ government, leadership and operational capabilities, and they should be very cautious about crossing that threshold.
Mercedes Stephenson: How is Israel preparing for the ground offensive and the possibility of a wider regional war?
Joining me now is Reserve Brig. Gen. Amir Avivi, Chairman of the Israel Defense and Security Forum. He’s a former IDF deputy commander of the Gaza division. Thank you so much for joining us today, general.
Brig. Gen. (Res.) Amir Avivi, Israel Defense and Security Forum Chairman, Jerusalem: You’re welcome.
Mercedes Stephenson: I know that Israel has been through tremendous trauma and is now preparing for a response. Can you take us through how the Israeli military is preparing to respond to these attacks from Hamas?
Brig. Gen. (Res.) Amir Avivi, Israel Defense and Security Forum Chairman, Jerusalem: Well, there was a government decision that we have to really achieve an unconditional surrender of Hamas in the Gaza Strip and strip Hamas completely from its capabilities and ability to govern the Gaza Strip. And for this, we are preparing for a grand operation. We have amassed allied forces that are relevant in the South. In the coming days, we see a ground operation in Gaza.
Mercedes Stephenson: Can you tell me what intelligence Israel has or believes in terms of what Hamas’ capabilities might be because I know there’s been a tremendous effort to try to gather more information? That intelligence before, obviously, was inaccurate. What do you expect Israeli soldiers are going to encounter?
Brig. Gen. (Res.) Amir Avivi, Israel Defense and Security Forum Chairman, Jerusalem: Hamas is not a terror organization, it’s a terror army. They’re equipped with everything an army has: drones, anti-tank missiles, IEDs, grenades, machineguns, tunnels, cyber. They have many capabilities. They have two thirds of the Gaza Strip as a fortress full of tunnels and bunkers and positions, and we’ll have to manoeuvre very aggressively with a lot of air force assistance and artillery and everything you need to do with war in order to secure soldiers and manage to do the missions with minimum casualties.
Mercedes Stephenson: You were the former deputy commander for the Gaza division, so I know it’s a place that you know very well. What would you anticipate the possible timeframe is once Israeli troops start to move to take Gaza?
Brig. Gen. (Res.) Amir Avivi, Israel Defense and Security Forum Chairman, Jerusalem: So when you go on offensive, there are two stages. The first stage is the manoeuvre which you usually do to centres of gravity, which the army needs to define where it wants to manoeuvre. And after you reach this point and deal with them, then really the hard part comes and this is really cleaning the whole Gaza Strip from a terror presence, destroying all terrorist infrastructures: tunnels, rocket launchers, bunkers, headquarters—I can for an hour or two, talking about missions. This takes months. This takes months. It’s not a short operation. And at the end of the day, the Gaza Strip needs to be a completely civilian area. No terror infrastructure at all in the Gaza Strip in the future.
Mercedes Stephenson: Would the Israeli military have the ability to hold the Gaza Strip if the Israeli government decided that they wanted to annex it?
Mercedes Stephenson: What role do you believe that Iran has played in the build up to these attacks and in the decisions about whether or not Hezbollah gets involved? I know there’s been border skirmishes. We just heard from the IDF Lt.-Col. who talked about fatalities as a result of that, but how involved do you think Iran is in the actual decision-making of what will play out?
Mercedes Stephenson: Does Israel have the ability to—and I know I’ve spoken with Israeli government sources who have said, you’re assuming that there very well could be a multi-front war. You’re hoping that there’s not. I know in 2006, it was difficult, and of course, it’s difficult to hold more than one front at a time. Do you think the Israeli military is prepared to fight Hamas and Hezbollah at the same time?
Mercedes Stephenson: You mentioned everyone’s been talking about Iran, but in addition to that, China and Russia. Can you tell us a bit about the role that you believe those two countries are playing in this?
Brig. Gen. (Res.) Amir Avivi, Israel Defense and Security Forum Chairman, Jerusalem: Well I think that we, you know, talking about the Russian-Ukrainian War and the sanctions—the harsh sanctions that have been imposed on Russia and Iran, and rightly so. And this created the dynamic that you see the East getting closer and closer together. Russia, Iran, North Korea, all these countries have been very dependent of China and are trying to build their own ecosystem. So the East and the South are building a force that is challenging the West, and I think that the West, especially the U.S. that leads the West, are starting to understand that this is a huge challenge that needs some kind of alliance to balance the globe and stabilize the Middle East in other regions, and this is what we’re seeing.
Mercedes Stephenson: The hostages are obviously a huge consideration in all of this and very difficult to find. Can you tell us how the Israeli military is calculating how do you carry out these operations, which could be devastating in an area where you know your own citizens maybe being held?
Brig. Gen. (Res.) Amir Avivi, Israel Defense and Security Forum Chairman, Jerusalem: We must say that it’s only—not only Israeli citizens. We have—there are many American citizens, many European citizens. And I think their best chance is the idea of offensive and us trying to really manoeuvre and find them and liberate them.
Mercedes Stephenson: Do you think the IDF might provide any humanitarian relief in this operation to the civilians of Gaza?
Brig. Gen. (Res.) Amir Avivi, Israel Defense and Security Forum Chairman, Jerusalem: Well we’re asking the civilians of Gaza to move south. In the south of Gaza they will be safer. We don’t want Palestinian civilians in a war zone involved. We’ll try to minimize these casualties. Hamas is doing everything it can to prevent them from moving south. It wants them as human shields. He wants civilians to die so he can blame Israel. So we are really doing everything we can to tell the civilians to go south. And if we were getting control of Gaza, of course we’ll also deal with the relief and all humanitarian aspects in this area.
Mercedes Stephenson: General, thank you so much for your time. We appreciate it.
Brig. Gen. (Res.) Amir Avivi, Israel Defense and Security Forum Chairman, Jerusalem: You are welcome.
Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, trapped with no way out as Israeli forces are preparing to close in, the desperate humanitarian situation in Gaza.
Mercedes Stephenson: According to the United Nations, an estimated 1 million people have been displaced in Gaza this week, as basic necessities like food, fuel and drinking water run out after Israel’s complete siege of the area.
We wanted to give you an idea of just how small this piece of land is where this extensive military campaign is expected to take place. For context, if you took Gaza, seen here in red, it would cover an area roughly the size of the island of Montreal. And for our Western viewers, it would cover a narrow strip, the length of the City of Calgary. So what can be done for the civilians who are trapped in this tiny area?
Joining me now to discuss this is Zaha Hassan, a human rights lawyer. She was the legal advisor to the Palestinian negotiating team during their bid for UN membership. Zaha, thank you for joining us.
Zaha Hassan, Carnegie Endowment for International Pace Fellow, McLean, Virginia: Thanks for having me.
Mercedes Stephenson: Let’s begin with what the situation is in Gaza. There are not a lot of Western journalists there, so the footage that we’re getting out is very sporadic. We’re not able to get a lot of reporting. I know that you are in touch with many contacts. Can you describe the situation for us?
Zaha Hassan, Carnegie Endowment for International Pace Fellow, McLean, Virginia: Yes. Thank you, again, for having me. This is a very sombre day. Look Gaza is a strip of land, as you’ve said a very small strip of land, where 2.3 million people, most of whom are refugees or descendants of refugees from 1948 when Israeli was established and it forced out three quarters of the Palestinian population from what became the State of Israeli. So these folks have been sitting there for 75 years, and their children and grandchildren now, and great grandchildren. And since 1967, they’ve been living under a very strict Israeli occupation that has since the last 16 years become a complete blockade and siege of the strip after Hamas, the resistance movement took over the strip that year. And their movements are completely controlled by Israeli. From birth to death, Israel controls everything. Whether someone gets a birth certificate, a death certificate, an ID number, as a resident of Gaza, all this is controlled by Israel and the situation has been a completely suffocating for the economy, as you might imagine. If there is a blockade, there’s a very difficult economic development that can happen in the strip, and so this is the context in which we have—we’re at this moment now, where we have the Hamas resistance movement attacking Israel on October 7th in a very brutal and despicable way, involving the deaths of 1,300 Israeli’s. And now we’re in this moment where Israel is lashing back at Hamas, but also the civilian population of Gaza who have no, you know, have no ability to take care of themselves because they are in the strip and they’re dependent on international aid, which is now leaving the strip because the UN is getting out of the way so that they can protect their own staff. So for me right now, this idea that, you know, 1.1 million Palestinians have been told that they should evacuate to southern—the southern part of Gaza—is just crazy, because this is an area of land where it’s already blockaded. There’s nowhere to go. Shelters are overrun. The Palestinian’s that are—you know there’s now over 2,300 that have been killed, almost 10 thousand people that have been wounded in hospitals. There’s only 2,500 beds—hospital beds in all of Gaza, and the biggest hospital is in the north where people are being told to evacuate. The hospital bed there is 500, but it’s overrun for the whole patients, people that have been wounded in this latest barrage. Babies in incubators, they’re not able to move. They’re not able to go anywhere. And even if you could transport 1.1 million people out of that area, you’re looking at no food or water entering Gaza, as you noted. And so the idea for these people is where would we stay? How would we get food and water? They would prefer to stay in their own houses and die in their own homes where at least they have some supplies, you know? So this is the situation Gaza finds itself in this morning.
Mercedes Stephenson: And on that, I think a lot of people are wondering why is it that Egypt won’t open the Rafah Gate and allow civilians out and into Egypt because yes, the Israeli’s are moving in. They say that they have given warning to try to allow people days to leave. They say the issue is Egypt who won’t let them out? Why is it that Egypt is not allowing them to come in?
Zaha Hassan, Carnegie Endowment for International Pace Fellow, McLean, Virginia: Look, Egypt has said that they are willing to open up a humanitarian corridor to bring in supplies and to take out critical patients to be treated in Egyptian hospitals. What they’re not okay with doing is having the Palestinian population that lives in Gaza, move into the Sinai and create a refugee camp in the Sinai for the 2.3 million people of Gaza. Now this—and Palestinians aren’t keen for this either. This is because the history—the Palestinian history is one of displacement and dispossession, since 1948, as I said, where three quarters of the population was forced out of their homes to make way for the creation of the State of Israel. For Palestinians hearing about this evacuation, they understand it as a permanent evacuation and a permanent displacement, no different than 1948 when 750 thousand Palestinians were forced out, or 1967, when another 150 thousand Palestinians were forced out of their homes during the Israeli occupation of the West Bank in Gaza. So there—this is not a solution for Palestinians, and it’s not a solution for Egypt, which is very, you know, concerned about its own territorial sovereignty. It fought wars with Israel to get back the Sinai and it’s not willing to compromise its sovereignty to make way for a solution, what in their minds is a political solution for Israel by removing the Palestinians from Gaza.
Mercedes Stephenson: Is there support among the civilian population in Gaza for Hamas?
Zaha Hassan, Carnegie Endowment for International Pace Fellow, McLean, Virginia: You know, it’s—it remains to be seen what the feeling is now for Hamas. Hamas has—was not popular before this current attack. What tends to happen when the Hamas resistance movement takes action against Israel to try to, you know, change the calculation of Israel’s control over Palestinian life in Gaza? Palestinians in general, are supportive of the idea of resistance. Whether they are pleased with what’s happening to them now is a different story. But the idea of resisting occupation, resisting siege and blockade is something that Palestinians have increasingly become supportive of. Why? Because negotiations, diplomacy has not worked for them in the decades after the Palestinian national movement signed an agreement with Israel towards creating a two state solution, there had been no fruits to the diplomatic track and so more and more resistance and even violent resistance is becoming something that people support. And now keep in mind even legal means have been blocked by the International Community for Palestinians to seek legal redress. Even access to the UN has been blocked, particularly by the United States. And so Palestinians, who are suffering under structural violence that many legal experts describe as apartheid, are fed up. They have no other means to express their displeasure with long term decade’s long oppression, and so now resistance is becoming more popular.
Mercedes Stephenson: Well and I think that I hear what you’re saying on resistance and we’ve seen radicalization in other countries when there’s marginalized populations that there’s a difference between resistance and murdering children. I think this is a very different operation that we’ve seen in the past. But I do want to ask just before we have to go, how much time do you think these Palestinian civilians have before the blockade starts to take a potentially devastating effect?
Zaha Hassan, Carnegie Endowment for International Pace Fellow, McLean, Virginia: Well just to get to your point on the issue of Palestinians and their support for resistance is one thing. Palestinians do not support—writ large—do not support attacking civilians. No. And under no circumstances, when I talk about resistance, support the resistance. I’m talking about support for confronting the structural violence that is occupation and apartheid. As for the Palestinians inside of Gaza and how much longer they can last under these circumstances, I really don’t know. We’re looking at a mass—either mass atrocities right now, or masked ethnic cleansing. And we’re watching it in real-time. This is a very critical time. The international community has to ask for a cease fire, demand a cease fire or we’re going to see a lot more Palestinians killed.
Mercedes Stephenson: Zaha, we’ll have to leave it there. Thank you so much for your time this morning.
Zaha Hassan, Carnegie Endowment for International Pace Fellow, McLean, Virginia: Thank you.
Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, the reality unfolding on the ground in the Middle East right now.
Mercedes Stephenson: Now is normally when we would do one last thing, but this week we felt that the images and interviews playing out on the ground tell the story more powerfully than a million words could. So we leave you now with the terrifying reality for Israeli and Palestinian civilians.
Unknown Speaker: “And I want to say something. Simply stop the war.”