Prime Minister Netanyahu: "We didn't seek this escalation, Hamas forced it on us"
Netanyahu: "Imagine that 75% of the U.S. population is under rocket fire"
Netanyahu: "We're sad for every civilian casualty. They're not intended"
Netanyahu: Gaza is "an Iranian-financed and equipped fortress of terror"
CNN’s Wolf Blitzer interviewed Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv Sunday.
Blitzer: Your exit strategy from Gaza, what is it?
Netanyahu: Sustainable quiet. I mean we didn’t seek this escalation, Hamas forced it on us. They started rocketing our cities, steadily increasing the fire. I called for de-escalation, they refused. I accepted an Egyptian cease fire proposal backed up by the Arab League and the U.N., they refused. I accepted a humanitarian lull proposed by the United Nations, they refused. We’ll stop our operations when we can bring back quiet to our people.
Blitzer: Some of your Cabinet members think that the only way to do that is to reoccupy Gaza, which you evacuated and gave it up back in 2005. Do you support reoccupying Gaza?
Netanyahu: Well, I support taking whatever action is necessary to stop this insane situation. Just imagine. I mean, imagine what Israel is going through. Imagine that 75% of the U.S. population is under rocket fire, and they have to be in bomb shelters within 60 to 90 seconds. So, I’m not just talking about New York. New York, Washington, Chicago, Detroit, San Francisco, Miami, you name it. That’s impossible, you can’t live like that. So I think we have to bring back, restore reasonable, sustained quiet and security, and we’ll take whatever action is necessary to achieve that.
Blitzer: But that includes possibly reoccupying Gaza? Because a lot of your military planners are afraid of what they would call a quagmire, a dangerous quagmire.
Netanyahu: Nobody wants to go to excessive military lengths, but what is happening here is excessive. They’re not only targeting our cities, they’re deliberately firing thousands of rockets. They’ve already fired 2,000 rockets on our cities in the past few days on our cities. You can imagine this. It’s not only that, and they’ve wanted to kill as many of our 6 million Israelis who are targeted as they could. They haven’t succeeded, not for lack of trying. It’s because we’ve developed with American help, and I appreciate the help that President Obama and the U.S. Congress have given us to develop these Iron Dome fantastic systems, but some of the missiles perforate, and they hit our schools. So, we have to stop that, but in addition to the rockets, they’ve got now terror tunnels that they build in Palestinian homes in Gaza, they penetrate underground into Israeli territory, terrorists pop up there, try to murder civilians, kidnap Israelis, as they did with Gilad Shalit, so we’re taking action right now to neutralize those tunnels, and we’ll continue the action as long as is necessary.
Blitzer: You see these painful pictures, though, of these Palestinian children, and these refugees thousands of them fleeing their homes. It’s a horrendous sight what’s going on right now, if you look at the images, heart wrenching. What goes through your mind when you see that?
Netanyahu: I’m very sad. When I see that I’m very sad. We’re sad for every civilian casualty. They’re not intended. This is the difference between us. The Hamas deliberately target civilians and deliberately hides behind civilians. They embed their rocketeers their rocket caches, their other weaponry from which they fire, which they use to fire on us, in civilian areas. What choice do we have? We have to protect ourselves. We try to target the rocketeers, we do, and all civilian casualties are unintended by us but actually intended by Hamas. They want to pile up as many civilian dead as they can, because somebody said they use, I mean it’s gruesome, they use telegenically dead Palestinians for their cause. They want the more dead, the better.
Blitzer: And the argument that your critics make is that you’re overreacting right now, over killing.
Netanyahu: Well look, I want to say this. There are very few examples in history of countries that have been rocketed on this scale. If you look at our response, it’s actually very measured and trying to be as pinpointed as we can. But I think when people say that, I appreciate the support we’ve received from President Obama and many world leaders for Israel’s right to self-defense, but others are saying, yeah you have the right to self-defense, as long as you don’t exercise it. What can a country do? What would you do? What would the people of the United States do if your cities were rocketed now, 2,000 rockets falling in American cities, you know, people would say in the United States, obliterate the people. We don’t want to obliterate them. We don’t want to, we don’t have any battle with the Palestinians in Gaza.
Blitzer: But it is brutal there, now.
Netanyahu: It’s very difficult because Hamas is using them, Palestinians, as human shields. We develop anti-missile systems to protect, we use anti-missile systems to protect our civilians. They use their civilians to protect their missiles. That’s the difference. So, against such a cynical, brutal, heartless enemy, we try to minimize civilian casualties, we try to target the military targets, and unfortunately there are civilian casualties which we regret and we don’t seek. They all fall on the responsibility of Hamas.
Blitzer: The President, President Obama urged the other day to all of the parties to return to the cease fire that was received in November 2012. Are you accepting his proposal, go back to that cease fire?
Netanyahu: I already did, I already did.
Blitzer: If Hamas were to say to you right now “We accept the cease fire,” would Israel withdraw its forces from Gaza?
Netanyahu: That was the Egyptian proposal, which we accepted and they refused.
Blitzer: If they accepted now, is it too late?
Netanyahu: I don’t know, I don’t want to speak about it being too late. I think the first thing is cessation of hostilities but then we’d have to –
Blitzer: Would Israel withdraw its forces as part of a cessation of hostilities?
Netanyahu: Well, first we’d have to deal with this tunnel business because we’re not leaving those tunnels –
Blitzer: So, you would stay until those tunnels are destroyed?
Netanyahu: We’re doing that right now, as we speak.
Blitzer: How long is that going to take?
Netanyahu: It’s being done fairly quickly. But I think the important thing right now is not to begin to put terms, the important thing right now is to end the hostilities, and we get into a situation where we have a sustainable cease fire. That means beginning to discuss the demilitarization of Gaza. Gaza, under all the previous agreements, should have been demilitarized. Instead of being demilitarized it became basically an Iranian-financed and equipped fortress of terror, with thousands and thousands of rockets and other weapons being smuggled and developed in it. That has to stop, those tunnels have to be shut down.
Blitzer: I’ve been here in Israel now for what, 10, 11 days, and many Israeli friends have said to me they are deeply concerned about what they see in this rise of tiny, but very violent and dangerous Jewish extremism. And as we saw that with that murder of that young Palestinian boy in the aftermath of the three Israeli teenagers who were kidnapped and killed. How concerned are you about this? Because that police report that came out on the murder of that Palestinian, you read that, that was awful.
Netanyahu: Well, you know, here’s the difference. We don’t glorify these killers. We apprehended them three days after that tragic killing, immediately put them in custody, we’re putting them on trial. They’ll serve a good chunk of their lives in jail. That’s what we do with the killers. We don’t name public squares after them. We don’t glorify them. We don’t educate our people, our children in suicide kindergarten camps, happens in the Palestinian side, and you should see what Hamas is educating them to. No peace, no two- state solution, nothing. Just jihad. More and more violence, more and more murder, more and more bloodshed. This is not our way. We have, I think a society is tested not by the extreme fringes of that society, but how it takes care of them. We take care of those extreme fringes, we basically isolate them and ostracize them, and punish them. I think what you see in Palestinian society, but especially in Gaza, is that these people are lionized. And the worst thing that I see, the worst thing, is that they use their children, they use, they don’t give any thought about them. I mean, the Hamas leaders are divided into two – those who are in underground bunkers in Gaza, they don’t care, let the people there, you know, with the rocketeers and with the attack tunnels, let them die as Israel tries to surgically take them out. But they’re safe underground, the military leaders. And then they’ve got the political leaders. This guy Khaled Mashaal, he’s roaming around, five star hotel suites in the Gulf states, he’s having the time of his life, while he’s deliberately putting his people as fodder for this horrible terrorist war that they’re conducting against us. So, this has to stop, and I think many people in Gaza understand that Hamas is destroying Gaza, destroying their lives. They’ve taken tons, not tons, tens of thousands of tons of concrete that we enabled them to bring in to Gaza to build skyscrapers, to build schools, to build hospitals. You know what they did with that, Wolf? They put 700 tons of concrete into each one of these terror attack tunnels to penetrate Israel. Now we’ve discovered dozens of them, so you’re talking about tens of thousands of tons of concrete, instead of going for the benefit of the schools, the population, going for terrorism against Israel. I think the international community has to, once this is put in place, we really have to undertake a program to demilitarize Gaza and to change the situation because it is unacceptable. What makes it unacceptable is Hamas and Islamic jihad. These people are the worst terrorist, genocidal terrorists. They call for the destruction of Israel, and they call for the killing of every Jew wherever they can find them.
Blitzer: We’re out of time, but one final question on Iran. Now that the U.S., the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, Germany, they’ve agreed to a four-month extension, allowing these talks with Iran and its nuclear program to continue. Does that mean a unilateral Israeli military strike, potentially, is off the table over the next four months?
Netanyahu: Now you know I never talk about what Israel will do or not do, but I think what is important is there wasn’t a bad deal, because there’s no deal. And no deal is better than a bad deal. We’ll see what the extension produces. I think a good deal is what was achieved with Syria. There, under the threat of U.S. military action and with a joint effort by President Obama and President Putin, Syria removed its chemicals and the capability to make chemical weapons. They didn’t just keep it in place, freeze it, and put it under a lock and put an inspector on it. They actually dismantled and removed. That’s not what Iran is holding out for. Iran wants to keep its capability and say “We’ll put in a lock under and you can inspect it.” But the whole idea for them is that at a certain point, they break the lock. The inspector will even say they broke the lock. It will take them a few weeks to put together the wherewithal for a nuclear bomb. That’s a bad deal. Don’t make that deal. Because if you think the Middle East is bad now, with ISIS, with Hamas, with Hezbollah, and with Iran, wait til Iran, one of the, the preeminent terrorist state of our time, has nuclear weapons. Then I would say the world goes into a tailspin. Don’t let it happen.