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Israel Must Prepare For More Violence, Netanyahu Adviser Says

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

So many kinds of violence have unfolded around Israel this week that it helps to give at least a partial review. Provocations, protests and police responses led to violence and many people injured in East Jerusalem, including at a Muslim holy site, the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Hamas showered Israeli cities with rocket fire, and Israeli warplanes bombed Hamas' base in Gaza. Also, Israeli TV has played video of rioting in Israeli streets, Arab attacks on Jewish targets and also live video of an assault on a man presumed to be Arab.

We have an Israeli perspective on all of this from Mark Regev, who is a senior adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Mr. Regev, welcome.

MARK REGEV: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: I want to address the violence within Israeli cities. First, we mentioned attacks on Arabs, attacks on Jews. How is your government responding to that disorder?

REGEV: Well, it can't be tolerated. I was with the prime minister yesterday. We went up to the city of Akko on the Mediterranean, where there has been such violence, and he was there with all the leadership of the Israeli police and the local leadership, the mayor and so forth. And the message was clear. We cannot tolerate this sort of violence, not Arab on Jewish violence, not Jewish on Arab violence. It has to stop, and we'll put an end to it. And if we need to, we'll bring in the military to augment the police forces.

INSKEEP: Are you in a difficult situation because you have, we should just explain for people, Arabs who are living within Israel, who are residents of Israel, who in a great many cases are citizens of Israel, but who, for various political reasons, have not felt entirely part of Israel?

REGEV: We're talking about the Israeli Arab community, which is about 20% of all of Israel's population. And they, as you say, are very active in Israeli politics. They vote in the Knesset; they are elected to the Knesset. We see them in all walks of life in Israel. But some of them, of course, have got an identification with their Palestinian brothers and sisters. We understand that, but we can't tolerate violence. That's clear.

INSKEEP: Reporter Daniel Estrin, one of our correspondents in the region, describes protesters earlier this week at the Al-Aqsa Mosque who felt, from their perspective, that they were defending Al-Aqsa from a police assault. Israeli police, doing their duty as they saw it, went into the crowds, fired rubber bullets. Eight different people lost an eye, according to Daniel Estrin, at a hospital there. This - I should say again, this is in an area that Israel annexed. These are people who, by Israel's lights, are residents of Israel, even citizens of Israel. Are they receiving equal protection of the law?

REGEV: Ever since Israel united the city of Jerusalem in 1967, we've upheld the principle of religious freedom, protecting everyone's right to worship as they see fit, protecting the holy sites of all faiths - Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Now, Temple Mount is operated autonomously by the Muslim religious council, and the police only acts there if they feel they really have to because of violence. Now, every year over Ramadan, which is the Muslim holy month we're just coming out of, the prayers go there peacefully. This year, unfortunately, some extremists decided to exploit the religious holidays. I think they were desecrating the holiness of the site, and the police felt compelled to act to bring an end to the violence.

But let me be clear - we in Israel well understand the importance of this religious site for Muslims in Israel, in the Middle East and globally. We would only act on the Temple Mount, only send in the police with riot control equipment and so forth, if we felt there was no alternative. And we thought this week, unfortunately, because of the violence that was coming through, that we had to act. I'd remind you, Steve, that in mosques and religious institutions across the Middle East, there have been other examples, not just in Israel, where extremists have tried to take over a mosque and local security has been forced to restore peace and quiet.

INSKEEP: Well, you do need to keep peace and quiet. I understand that. But as you probably know, this news is arriving in the United States amid a very big debate over police use of force and when it's appropriate. When there are protesters, even people violating the law, what is an appropriate use of force? When you have people whose eyes are being shot out, are you entirely going to defend that level of force?

REGEV: I can say the following - I know for a fact that because we understand the sensitivity of the mosque for the Muslim population, we will only send the police in if we felt there was no alternative. Now, of course, after this sort of incident, like in the United States, we have checks and balances. The police activity will be looked at; it will be investigated. If there were policemen who acted in an inappropriate way, obviously, steps will be taken. We are a society where we check ourselves constantly. But the idea or the myths that Hamas is putting out, that somehow Israel went in there and acted against innocent worshippers who just wanted to pray, that's not true. If people were just - we weren't dealing with worshippers. Unfortunately, we were dealing with violent rioters.

INSKEEP: I'm glad you mentioned Hamas. Let's turn to that branch of this conflict. There's been this exchange of fire with Hamas, I'll remind people. We have seen the videos and other reporting - buildings bombed in Gaza and, of course, showers of rockets falling on Tel Aviv, many of them intercepted, but not all of them apparently; Israelis killed, Palestinian civilians killed in Gaza. From this distance, it looks like a war. Is it a war?

REGEV: Well, it definitely looks like one. We've had over 1,500 rockets fired from the terrorists - by the terrorists in Gaza into Israel. They've been concentrating on the south, but the missiles have reached the Tel Aviv area, where a huge part of Israel's population lives. Missiles have been targeted on Jerusalem. And obviously, this is something no country would tolerate, that an outside terrorist group would lobby missiles, volley after volley of missiles, onto their civilian population. We're - so we're taking the necessary steps to protect our people.

INSKEEP: Reuters reports Israeli troops massed at Gaza's border today. Obviously, you're not going to tell me about future military operations, but set some expectations for us. Should we be prepared for the possibility of further escalations of this conflict?

REGEV: I think we have to be prepared in Israel. We wouldn't be doing our job responsibly unless we took into account different contingencies. I want to stress, though, that Israel was not interested in this escalation. We did everything I think we could - in the days leading up to the explosion on Monday night when they sent the rockets into Israel, we did everything we could to try to de-escalate, to try to calm things down. The government took three decisions on Monday morning that were designed specifically to try to de-escalate. But unfortunately, the Hamas leadership - I don't know why exactly, maybe because of the cancellation of the Palestinian elections, where they thought that they had a chance of doing very well in a democratic election on the Palestinian side, and then Palestinian government cancelled the elections. And this was a way for them to show their frustration. I don't know the exact reason, but they chose now as the time to escalate. And we can't have a situation where they're just shooting rockets at our people. We have to stop it.

INSKEEP: We are in a situation, though, where from a distance this looks like a cycle. Periodically, for one reason or another, there is this exchange of fire, some kind of military operation, confrontation with Hamas. We had an Israeli woman elsewhere in the program today who's living around Tel Aviv and said she is reminded of the war in 2014, for example. Why do you think you're in this cycle year after year?

REGEV: Well, I think a lot of it's because of Hamas. We've spoken in the past, negotiated with the Palestinian leadership, and hopefully we'll be doing it again soon. But Hamas is against negotiations. I mean, Hamas is very much in an Islamist radical tradition where they reject negotiations. They say my country has no right to exist, not in any borders. And as long as they control Gaza and they have a situation where they can use their military machine to attack us, we have to be able to deter them militarily. If Hamas changed, if they became more moderate, that would open opportunities. But at the moment, they're stuck in this very extreme hard-line position.

INSKEEP: Mr. Regev, it's a pleasure talking with you again. Thanks very much for the time.

REGEV: Thanks for having me, Steve.

INSKEEP: So much more to discuss, and we will continue covering this story. Mark Regev is a senior adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.