‘We Invest in Defending Our Citizens; I Wish Palestinian Leaders Would Do the Same’
The Media Line’s Felice Friedson sits down with Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Lior Haiat to talk about what went right and wrong during the 11-day Operation Guardian of the Walls
Lior Haiat is the spokesman for Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Previously, he served as Israel’s consul general to Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Puerto Rico and as spokesman and public diplomacy officer at the Israeli Embassy in Spain. He speaks Spanish, English, Hebrew and Portuguese.
The Media Line: Thank you so much for joining me today on The Media Line.
Haiat: Thank you so much for having me!
TML: You’re welcome! The Guardian of the Walls operation took a lot of power, both strategically when it came to warfare as well, and then, of course, there is the element of the PR vision of what Israel has to the world. Let’s take a look for a moment of what went down. Two weeks later we’re looking at quiet. We’re looking at the fact that thousands – over 4,000 – rockets were fired into Israel but yet Hamas still has the capability of firing again into Israel.
Haiat: Let’s start by putting this whole operation into context. Israel wasn’t looking to start a military conflict with Hamas, a terrorist organization in Gaza. We did everything we could to avoid conflict and to avoid confrontation but it was a decision made by Hamas that had nothing to do with Israel. This decision was internal dynamic politics within the Palestinian people and Hamas wanted to show their strength vis-à-vis the Palestinian Authority and they thought that attacking Israel and Israeli citizens is a way to do so. Israel was under a terror attack by a terror organization the controls the Gaza Strip and what we did during the almost two weeks of Guardian of the Walls was to first of all try to stop the missile launching from the Gaza Strip unto the Israeli cities and also to damage the infrastructure of the terror organization Hamas and other terror organizations within the Gaza Strip.
And I don’t think we ended this operation in the same way we started [it]. Hamas took a huge hit to its powers. A lot of the things that Hamas prepared for a future confrontation with Israel are no longer available for its terrorist organization. It doesn’t mean that Hamas is not in control of the Gaza Strip anymore but it does make a difference when we talk to the international community regarding how to move forward and to understand that we cannot go back to the day before. Things cannot be the same. We can’t allow Hamas to regain its power and we cannot allow Hamas to take both Israeli citizens and Palestinian citizens of the Gaza Strip hostage in the hands of a terror organization deciding whether they want to start a military confrontation with Israel or not.
So, I think we are in a different situation today. I think that the near future will determine whether we can put Hamas in a different strategic situation and create another equation between Israel and the Gaza Strip.
TML: Lior, why does Israel always wait to have to be on the offensive? They knew that this tunnel [system] was being built deeper. They knew that there was an accumulation of rockets. It’s years – it’s almost like every five years that this happens.
Haiat: First of all, we have no interest with starting a conflict with Gaza. Israel left the Gaza Strip in 2005 with no intention in going back there. It’s not our goal. We want to live in peace with our neighbors in the Gaza Strip and we really thought that the Gaza Strip could become an example for other places [of] how Palestinians can rule themselves. Unfortunately, it became a territory that is controlled by a terror organization that actually took over in a military coup against the Palestinian Authority, killing hundreds of Palestinians while doing so.
The idea was that we didn’t think that Hamas had any objective of attacking Israel. We understand that they have gained power in the Gaza Strip but there was an imbalanced situation that was relatively quiet to calm. As I said before, Israel had no intention of starting a military operation but we were prepared because we knew that that day might come and we prepared ourselves for that day. We prepared ourselves in two ways. First of all, we prepared ourselves in a way of defending our civilians. The Iron Dome was a great example for that. Over 90% of the missiles and rockets that were launched from the Gaza Strip were intercepted before they hit Israeli cities. But we also prepared ourselves with intelligence of what’s going on in Gaza, knowing how to get the terrorists while they are attacking Israel. This was the reason for the operation.
TML: That works two ways, so then you have Hamas and the Iranian proxies looking at Israel and looking at the capabilities of the Iron Dome and how they can overpower the Iron Dome and looking at how they can attack Israel. So, what do you think you learned from that?
Haiat: I think that they learned that the Iron Dome is a very successful technology. We are talking about over 4,000 missiles that were launched into Israel. Out of that, a very small number, not even the 10%; the 10% were the ones that were left actually towards Israeli cities that their impact could create casualties.
I don’t think that anyone can imagine this kind of technology in another place in the world. Ten years ago, if we hadn’t had this kind of technology, we would be looking at 10 times as much casualties on the Israeli side as well. Israel invested in defending its citizens.
You talked about Iran, the proxies, [and] other terror organizations in the region. They understand that Israel has the capability. True, it’s not 100% efficient but it’s very close to that and we’re doing a lot. Let me just tell you one thing, because one of the reactions I got in social media talked about how expensive is the Iron Dome. Every missile that costs $2,000 that was launched from the Gaza Strip, we launched [in return] missiles that cost tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Well, yes, we’re investing in defending our citizens. I wish the leadership of the Palestinian people would’ve done the same thing. Instead, they are investing in attacking Israel and putting their civilians as human shields to protect the terrorists. Actually, this is the mirror image of what Israel is doing. Israel is investing in defending its citizens; Hamas has been putting their citizens to risk while defending the terrorists.
TML: Tomorrow, if low-lying drones came en masse into Israel, is Israel prepared for that? It’s not the same technology.
Haiat: I think I’m not a military expert and I don’t want to go into that. I think that Israel is prepared. We saw that with the Guardian of the Walls. It’s an operation that we didn’t initiate. We were attacked but we knew how to respond very fast and very effectively as well, because in all of the attacks we are targeting military terroristic infrastructure and operatives.
TML: It is said that the operation that we just saw was a mere 8% of what it might be if Hezbollah were to attack Israel. Defense Minister of Israel Benny Gantz just reiterated that. Is Israel prepared for this? Is this something that Israelis need to be concerned about?
Haiat: First of all, we need to be concerned. We live in a neighborhood that has terrorist organizations like Hamas, Islamic Jihad and others that target Israel, and see Israel as their enemies. The fact that we’re concerned doesn’t mean that we’re not ready. I think that the lesson that the terrorist organization learned from this operation or others in the past, is that the cost of attacking Israel [is not worth it]. Israel will defend its citizens and Israel will do whatever we can to stop the aggression and hit the infrastructure of the terror organization. This is the right and the duty of every government to defend its citizens.
TML: A chant that we hear often about Israel’s case to the world. Do you feel, looking at where things are right now on the map of debates of the war, that Israel should have maybe not have taken out the AP tower? The tower that housed the Associated Press.
Haiat: First of all, I don’t want to go into a military decision. I will talk in general and I think that we have to put it in proper context because it’s way larger than only one building or one military operation or the other. The goal of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is to acquire the time and the legitimate space for the government of Israel and the IDF to have the time to get the objective of the operation done. And we did that. We actually saw that the support for Israel during Operation Guardian of the Walls was higher and broader than in other cases, similar cases, in the past.
We will have to mention, and it’s important to mention, the support we got from the Biden administration all through the operation but also other countries around the world, and I’ll mention countries like Austria and the Czech Republic that during the operation raised the Israeli flag over important buildings in their capitals. This sends a message. There were ministers of foreign affairs visiting Israel during the operation as a solidarity act and it’s the first time it happened in a similar operation.
There was no international foreign decision that would limit the way Israel could act during the operation, so we did [get] the diplomatic support we needed and the political support we needed. The public opinion has a role in that in the game but it’s not a decisive role. The decisive role was the decision by governments and I think that that part was well covered.
The public opinion, we have that issue time and time again. That doesn’t mean that we’re not trying to change the views or to present the opinion and the messages of the State of Israel but there are a lot of people looking at this situation as we saw with some celebrities, in a very simplistic and sometimes very ignorant way. They say you are stronger, so they are right. This is not how you have to do the analysis. The analysis is wrong.
TML: In bringing that up and bringing up the Palestinian side of the Hadid sisters that were vocal on social media and then looking at Gal Gadot and others on the Israeli side, do you feel that it just equalizes out? How do you view what’s happening on social media?
Haiat: On social media, we are David and they are Goliath. It’s a numbers issue. There are many more Muslims around and Arabs around the world than [there are] Jews who are supportive of Israel. It doesn’t mean that they are right. It doesn’t mean that they have more influence. It doesn’t mean that 30 million followers of one of the models that you mentioned are interested in what’s going on between the terror organization Hamas and Israel. I think they are more interested in the way they are models dressed and what they choose to wear, so this is one part.
I think that the message, most of the messaging that Israel was under attack did go through and we saw that. We saw that in polls. We saw that we did [so] in Europe and we did [so] in the US. We saw that in numbers. We saw that in places where there were demonstrations against Israel that were very small compared to other operations in the past.
There were a lot of demonstrations supporting Israel, not only by Jewish communities or Israelis living abroad but also by other groups that understood that Israel is under a terrorist attack and if you don’t support Israel in this time, you will have the same situation in your country in the future.
TML: Let’s look at the war of images, because it very often boils down to the front page of The New York Times showing all of the children that were killed in Gaza and then you compare it to the children here in Israel. Do you feel that Israel played in a way into what Hamas was trying to gain, because they were looking for power and they know that the Palestinian elections are not coming any time soon. Do you feel that that was a possibility?
Haiat: Not really! I have to tell you, that when we look at the situation where Israelis are under attack from a terror organization, the first thing we have to do is to defend the Israeli citizens and try to stop the attacks. There is no army in the world that does even 10% of what the IDF does in order to prevent casualties from people that are not directly involved in a terror activity. The responsibility for what’s happened in the Gaza Strip lies only on the hands of Hamas. This is not our goal to attack the civilians in Gaza. We really feel sorry for the casualties that happened to those not involved, especially with kids. When anyone looks at kids that died, they think that it’s an outcome of a military situation but you don’t compare numbers in this type of situation and say that they have more casualties and it means that they are more right. It’s the other way around!
TML: Israel’s allies, and we have seen this, have had significant numbers of loss and casualty loss. Why is Israel held to a different standard in this particular area?
Haiat: One thing I’ve learned in the 20 years that I am a diplomat, is that there is a sentence that is only used against Israel. From day one of a military operation or a conflict of this size, some leaders of the world, some newspapers start to talk about proportional response, which means that Israel is under attack but Israel should limit its response to be proportional. What is the proportional response when you are attacked by 4,000 missiles?
Those terrorists are trying to kill every Israeli. This is what they say. They say it out loud. You don’t even have to look into their secret phone conversations. They are actually saying that out loud that their goal is to destroy the State of Israel and to kill every Jew living in Israel and around the world. So, what is a proportional response for an Israeli in this situation? Any other country would have done the same thing. Any other country would have tried to do the same thing. Israel invests mainly in defending its citizens. Israel invests a lot in defending the Palestinians that are not involved in Gaza.
There is one side that gains out of this – on the Israeli side and on the Palestinian side. Then there is another side, the Israeli side, that tries to protect innocent Israelis and innocent Palestinians. Every time, and time and time again, they are trying to say that this is not proportional. I think that it’s not only proportional. It’s what every country would have done in the same situation and this is one of the messages that we’ve tried to present around the world. Your country would have done the same thing. What Israel is doing is up to the highest moral standards in a military operation and this is not just us saying that. Military experts around the world say that they haven’t seen any other army that puts so much effort into protecting innocent people.
TML: Lior, you have covered this scene many a time. You’ve done hundreds of interviews. What do you think is going wrong? Why is Israel failing in a way to get the messages they are trying to get out to the world?
Haiat: I don’t think Israel is failing. I think that we have priorities and the first priority is defending our citizens. We will not allow Hamas to kill more Israelis just to gain more support around the world. We created the State of Israel to create or to build a safe place for Jews around the world. We invest a lot in creating this safe place. There is no other country in the world that people… Kindergartens are actually shelters that kids could play in a safe place for them.
The other side is doing the exact opposite. They are defending terrorists. They are investing in the way they could attack Israelis, while leaving their citizens as human shields to die and to gain their propaganda around the world by celebrating the death of their own citizens. Israel’s goal is to defend the Israeli citizens. The second goal is also to defend the Palestinians that were not involved but we will not just sit and allow the Hamas, as a terror organization, to kill us, just to be more popular around the world. This is not how Israel will act.
TML: Lior, you’re dealing with war tactics and in war tactics, you have minutes to get out messages, and when one side can show devastation, it is often difficult to show the world something else. In evaluating and analyzing what went down in this 11-day event, what would be done differently? What should be done differently?
Haiat: First of all, I think that in the operation itself, Guardian of the Walls, Israel gained a lot of objectives. It reached a lot of its objectives both military and political, and also a diplomatic objective. I think that within the PR world and the image, we start in a very low point because people expect Israel to be weaker. They don’t like to support the strong side of the equation but Israel is strong and we are not sorry for that. Actually, this is what we are investing in, to be stronger than our enemies.
We don’t want to get the Palestinians out of the Gaza Strip. They want to get us out of here [Israel]. We are defending ourselves, and unfortunately, many times based on ignorance and knowing very little about the conflict, people are trying to balance the situation and analyze the situation based on numbers. This is not an issue of numbers. This is an issue of intentions. The Palestinian terrorist organizations are actually using the Palestinians in order to gain the public opinion around the world. It’s a situation that if we have to choose whether we’ll invest more and leave more Israelis defenseless, we will invest in defending Israelis and we will look into the propaganda issue later. This is [and] unbalanced situation, [an] unbalanced conflict. Militarily, Israel is stronger. In the public opinion, unfortunately, numbers talk and they have a lot more numbers.
TML: Do you feel the public relations right now is tied to the greater look at Israel? Meaning, if you look at what Israel stands for as a Startup Nation and all of the things that it’s done, right now even [the] US News and World Report came out with a report that Israel as far as ranking good countries has come down in the last five years. There are other reports that point to that, so my question is, is it that ongoing understanding of Israel and where it sits in terms of the key other issues, [and] not just dealing with Gaza and the Palestinian Authority? Then maybe Israel’s look at what they are doing has to shift.
Haiat: I don’t know. I think that over the last year, if we take the Guardians of the Walls aside, Israel was looked at as a pioneer in fighting COVID-19. We were the first country to have a massive vaccination operation. If you look around Israel, you can’t imagine that other countries are still dealing with COVID-19, when Israel was the first country to go back to relatively normal lives, and parallel to that, the Abraham Accords and the peace agreements with the countries in the Gulf and with Morocco and hopefully in the future with Sudan. Israel’s image around the world was first of all pioneered in leadership and fighting COVID-19 and seeking peace and creating a new reality in the Middle East.
The situation with the Palestinians, the conflict with the Palestinians, is an issue we have to deal with but it’s not the only way Israel is seen around the world. We see a lot of interest around the world to come to Israel to learn from Israel, both on COVID issues but also on innovation and on what was called a startup nation or innovation nation, and we see that even in places that we didn’t have any connections before.
We just signed a very important treaty with the UAE allowing investment from both sides to come into Israel and into the UAE. That will change the way the Israeli economy will act in the next, I think, decades. And it will definitely change the face of Israel and the UAE and the entire Middle East. It will bring prosperity to both peoples and it will bring stability to the region and maybe it will create the right reality for other countries to join the circle of peace. So, looking at that, I think the image of Israel in the last year was stronger around the world. We’ve seen it in polls. We understand that there is a lot of interest in what’s going on in Israel vis-à-vis the relations with the Palestinians but also with the greater situation or the reality of how the Middle East is changing and how Israel is actually part of, or a player, that brings stability to the region while other actors here are destabilizing the situation or bringing conflict and supporting terror, like in Iran. We see that every place that Iran has its fingerprints on, you’ll see terror, you’ll feel conflict and you’ll see violence.
TML: The war was with Hamas. It wasn’t necessarily with the Palestinian people. Did that message get out?
Haiat: The war wasn’t with Gaza. The war was against Hamas, a terror organization. A recognized terror organization. Unfortunately, the media coverage of that part wasn’t entirely correct.
In the international media, the way they portrayed the message was as a war between Israel and the Palestinians and I don’t think that’s the truth. Israel was in a military conflict with a terror organization. This terror organization controls the Gaza Strip but we are not in a conflict with the Palestinians – the Palestinians that live in the Gaza Strip – [but] only with the terrorists.
Every time we are in a conflict with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, it’s only directed at the terrorists and the terror infrastructure. Unfortunately, Hamas is using and abusing the people of the Gaza Strip in order to defend their terror infrastructure. And I would say another thing. One of the problems we saw was [when] you saw one side of the conflict is Israel. You saw Israelis defend themselves. You saw Israelis in shelters. You saw the Iron Dome operatives that were actually very successful in this operation and on the other side, you wouldn’t see the Hamas militants, terrorists. You would see only the Palestinians and that created the situation like that or the image that Israel is fighting the Palestinians.
We had no conflict with the Palestinians of Gaza. We have no conflicts with the Palestinians of Gaza. We do have a conflict with a terror organization named Hamas and others that control the Gaza Strip.
TML: And yet this also did weaken the Palestinian Authority. How does that bode for the future?
Haiat: I think that the inner politics of the Palestinians shouldn’t be an issue that Israel deals with from outside. I do think that the Palestinians wouldn’t gain anything by allowing Hamas to be in power. I don’t think that the region will gain anything if we allow a terror organization to be the leading voice of the Palestinian people. And I don’t even think that the international community will gain anything by allowing Hamas to be the leadership or to gain the leadership of the Palestinian people.
Hamas is not just a problem for Israel. It’s a problem for the Palestinians. It’s a problem for the region, because there are other countries that deal with similar terror organizations with the same ideology, like ISIS [and] al-Qaida, like the Muslim Brotherhood in different places, and it’s a problem. Also, Hamas is a huge problem for the international community. Those who seek to help the Palestinians, shouldn’t support Hamas gaining control over the Palestinian Authority.
TML: In past conflicts, Israel has set up field hospitals for humanitarian aid to assist the Gazan people. Why not now?
Haiat: Actually Hamas. We wanted to send international humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip and every time we tried, Hamas bombed the checkpoints. It was very clear to us, because they knew that those are humanitarian aid trucks that are coming into Gaza. They didn’t want it. They didn’t want the humanitarian aid coming into Gaza. They live out of the misery of their own people. This is a terrible situation. This is a tragedy.
The real tragedy of the Gaza Strip is Hamas and when people say, “Free Gaza,” I totally support it. Free Gaza from Hamas. I think that Gaza could have been and could still be in the future a great place for Palestinians to live, if not under a terror organization.
TML: This is not the last conflict. There will be many more ahead. It is not easy to be able to sit in your seat and go from media outlet to media outlet describing, and often painfully, what happens during these times. Where do you get your strength?
Haiat: First of all, I really believe in what we’re doing. We’re trying to show the real face of Israel in a situation and a reality that often only focuses on specific issues regarding Israel. I’ve done hundreds of interviews in the last 20 years that I’m a diplomat. In the last two weeks, I’ve done, I think, dozens of interviews around the world in different languages, for different audiences, and my message is very clear to all of them. Israel wants peace.
I remember one of the interviews I did, and the journalist asked me, “How can you say that? Well, you’re in a conflict.” And I said, “Well, I’ll tell you a story.” A few months ago, I got a phone call from my boss and he tells me that I have to go to Abu Dhabi the next day to be one of the first Israelis, or the advance team, to get to Abu Dhabi in order to start the Abraham Accords and receive the first-ever delegation from Israel. And when I got there and when I was in the Abu Dhabi royal terminal looking at the El Al flight that just flew over Saudi Arabia for the first time and it’s about to land in Abu Dhabi, I understood that this is why I became a diplomat. I became a diplomat to be a part of the peace process in the Middle East. We believe in peace. Israel has done so many things in order to achieve peace with our neighbors and we still do. You said that this is not the last conflict. Hopefully, you are wrong. We will prepare ourselves for the worst situation but we also will try to get us and the Palestinians into a reality that we could live side by side with the security that we need. And in that situation, [it] will bring stability to the region and prosperity for both sides.
TML: Lior Haiat, spokesman for Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, truly thank you for the time and for explaining some of the initiatives that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is involved in when it comes to defending itself during conflict, and not.
Haiat: Thank you so much for having me!