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Gideon Sa’ar, Israeli minister: ‘There will be security zones in Gaza that will be forbidden to be approached’

The veteran politician, who has joined the new emergency government formed for the war, says that destroying Hamas sends a message to neighboring countries and that Israel will establish buffer areas in the enclave, which may be mined

Israel Hamas War
Minister Gideon Saar, at his party headquarters, on the outskirts of the Israeli city of Modiin, this past Monday.Alejandro Ernesto

Gideon Sa’ar, 56, speaks slowly and calmly, but punctuates his sentences with small raps on the table with his knuckles. Nothing surprising in — as he defines it — “the most critical moment” in Israel’s 75-year history.

Sa’ar has been Minister of Education, the Interior and Justice, in the brief and diverse coalition government formed by many of his former allies, united only by their rejection of the current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. “There were years in which we worked together and others in which I was perhaps his greatest rival,” he jokes in an interview at the headquarters of his party, New Hope, on the outskirts of the city of Modiin, between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

He has spent almost his entire political career in the Likud party. He left it in 2019, after failing in his attempt to wrest leadership from Netanyahu in the primary. He founded New Hope, and ran in the elections last November along with Benny Gantz’s formation, National Unity. On October 11, both left the opposition and stopped their criticism of Netanyahu’s controversial judicial reform to join the emergency government created expressly for the war against Hamas. He has not assumed a portfolio because there is no need: he is one of the 20 politicians selected to have a permanent seat in the political and security cabinet, a small forum to speed up decision-making in times of crisis.

Sa’ar argues that “destroying Hamas” also sends a message to the rest of Israel’s neighbors and that, when that happens, Israel will establish security zones in Gaza, which may be mined, where it will be prohibited to approach. He blames Hamas “solely and exclusively” for the deaths of Palestinian civilians in Israeli bombings and does not believes the Palestinian Authority (PNA) is capable of governing in Gaza, which the United States is pushing for. But above all, Sa’ar wants Israel to navigate its present and future with one idea clear in its mind: its enemies are trying to exterminate the Jews just as much as the Nazis in the Holocaust. “The only difference,” he says, “is their capabilities.”

Question. You have said that following the brutality of the October 7 attack, Israel has to change its concept of security. What are you referring to?

Answer. In one day about 1,400 Israelis were murdered and 250 kidnapped. How many residents are there in Spain? Forty million?

Q. Forty-eight million.

A. Every Spaniard has to imagine that 7,000 Spaniards were murdered and 1,250 kidnapped in a terrorist attack. What would Spain’s reaction be? I am convinced that it would eliminate the threat and destroy the military capabilities of those who did something like that so that they cannot do it again. And that is our goal. The broad context is very important. Israel withdrew from Gaza 18 years ago. In fact, it uprooted its entire civilian population. Even the graves. And its military presence without exception. From that moment on, Gaza could have taken another direction, but it became one of the world’s largest bases for terrorism and aggression against Israel and its citizens. We have had six small wars or military skirmishes with Hamas. And we did not do what we should have done. And now, we must do it: destroy Hamas’s military and government capabilities. It is important in itself and it is important from a regional perspective, so that our neighbors understand that doing something like this [the October 7 attack] is not something that can be overlooked. I wouldn’t even say it requires an answer, because it would be a joke to talk about an answer. It requires the source of evil to be cut off at the roots.

Q. And then what?

A. We have no territorial claim over Gaza nor any desire to renew Jewish settlements. We have the will to live in peace and with Hamas it is impossible to live in peace, because in its founding charter is the destruction of the state of Israel. Not just that: the destruction of the Jews. We have seen it with our own eyes. We are talking about a Nazi, Hitlerian movement. And with a movement like that, there can be no peace. We have no intention of coming and saying who will govern our neighbors. But we will not let the one who is working to destroy us do it. What will happen the day after? We are in talks about it. I really hope that Egypt will be a partner. It borders the Gaza Strip, it controlled it in the past, it knows the place well... And I think for a few years there will be some kind of transition period, with the international community playing a role to rehabilitate Gaza, our status, regional powers like Egypt and the protection of our security, that is…

Q. A military presence.

A. We don’t have to stay in the middle of the population there. We don’t intend to do that. But just as today we enter and leave Jenin or Tulkarem to hit the organization before they hurt us, we should do the same. We cannot let terrorism flourish on its own. And [we need] buffer strips at the border. What used to happen before — when terrorists roamed freely along the border and even went as far as the barrier itself and shot at soldiers — will not happen again

There will be security strips, of one kilometer, or whatever is defined, to which it is forbidden to approach. Maybe we will put mines there, I’m not going to decide now. But our kibbutzs and our towns near the border need security the day after they return at the end of the operation. We will give them the confidence to return there. And they will.

Q. It is a change of concept, but it is still a concept of force. More force than before. How does it help the security of the state of Israel that there are 10,000 dead in Gaza, apparently mostly civilians? Doesn’t it generate more hatred?

A. Hatred comes from indoctrination. In the Palestinian Authority as well. Killing Jews, thinking that they are not human beings, hating them... that’s what they are taught from birth. It does not come from the use of force.

We are not fighting the Gazans, we are fighting Hamas. And we operate under international law. We never target civilians, unlike Hamas. In fact, we told them, “Get out of here and get out of there, we are going to act in these areas.” It may have compromised our surprise factor, but we wanted to protect the civilian population. Although hundreds of thousands have left, Hamas is preventing their arrival [in the south]. So who is responsible for these deaths? Hamas, not Israel.

There are no wars, certainly not in densely populated areas, in which civilians are not harmed. The basic question is whether you operate according to the laws of war, whether you target civilians, whether you maintain the principle of proportionality. We are acting in accordance with international law under very difficult conditions.

Q. The numbers do not speak of a localized operation.

A. I come back to the same thing. International law speaks of proportionality. Whoever hides behind the civilian population, forces the population to stay and is guilty of killing civilians, it is only and exclusively Hamas. So, if there are many Palestinian dead, you will have to go to Hamas. Why did you attack on October 7? Why don’t you allow the population to evacuate? Why do you use the population as human shields? But we cannot sacrifice ourselves and not act. We have to protect our people. The time when Jews were killed without being able to defend themselves ended in 1948 [the year of Israel’s creation]. Today, Jews are defending themselves. Our mistake was not to do so until now. We should have done it much earlier. We had a chance in 2014, in 2019. We waited too long. We will not wait any longer.

Q. Doesn’t this contribute to the cycle of violence?

A. I don’t want to say that you don’t understand, but there is a lack of understanding in the question. The cycle of violence arises from: education for peace or education for murder. If you are raised from the age of zero to kill Jews, you can go to a kibbutz and put a baby in the oven. There was no Israeli attack to respond to.

Q. If I understand correctly, what you are saying is that it is gratuitous hatred, which has nothing to do with the blockade of Gaza or with the military occupation.

A. No, it has nothing to do with any of that. We do not want any blockade of Gaza. The mistakes we made were the opposite. We brought in workers who collected intelligence information and passed it on to Hamas. Cement came in and they used it for tunnels. If we made mistakes it was because of our humane treatment towards them. We never made mistakes the other way around.

Q. You mentioned Egypt could play a role in Gaza’s future, but not the Palestinian Authority. Why?

A. I look at the practical first. The people I consult with and whose judgment I trust, in the security and intelligence system, tell me that the PA has no chance of assuming responsibility and controlling Gaza. It does not even control Jenin, so it is not realistic that it can control Gaza. Furthermore, we have problems with it that I would focus on: incitement [to violence] and payment to terrorists and their families. That has to end and there will be no political process without it ending.

Gideon Saar, during the interview, this Monday in the Israeli city of Modiin.
Gideon Saar, during the interview, this Monday in the Israeli city of Modiin.Alejandro Ernesto

Q. Regarding the hostages, isn’t acting like this in Gaza contradictory with the talks for their release?

A. No, because we understood that [Hamas political leader in Gaza, Yahia] Sinwar has no interest in releasing the hostages. Before the ground operation, we gave him time and there were no results. Our conclusion was that Sinwar sees the hostages as an asset and doesn’t want to reach any agreement. [He wants] to use them to disrupt our military operation. So I think the use of military force has the potential to soften Hamas’s stance on the release of the hostages.

Q. How?

A. In the willingness to reach a ceasefire. Because there won’t be a ceasefire without the release of hostages. It’s just not going to happen. So the use of military force can bring them to the point of releasing the babies, elderly people and women they are holding. And it can create additional operational opportunities, like when we freed a female soldier last week.

Q. Is releasing Palestinian prisoners, as the families request, an option?

A. I will not go into details, because I do not believe that a public debate can help free a single hostage. But there are discreet channels and, if there is a possibility of releasing hostages, we will do it. I don’t say what we are willing to do and what we are not willing to do. As soon as you say: ‘I am willing to do X,’ X becomes the starting point and they ask you for twice as much as X.

Q. I know you don’t want to talk about Netanyahu, but this is not a one or two-week war, but a long process. Is he the person to lead it? Does he have legitimacy after what happened?

A. Netanyahu was in office on October 7. But so were the Minister of Defense, the Chief of the General Staff, and the head of the Shabak [secret services in Israel and Palestine]… and they are all leading the war.

Q. But they did assume their share of responsibility.

A. The question is what you see as the main issue. For me it is winning the war. And that is why I made the decision to put aside all political issues and on October 7 I spoke of a national emergency government, which was formed five days later. I have collaborated and worked together with Netanyahu for years. There were years when I was perhaps his greatest rival. But all those things are not relevant right now. Now we are working together.

Q. I’m talking more about whether the people trust him.

A. We are in a democratic system. And he is prime minister because he has the confidence of the majority of the Knesset [Parliament]. On October 7 we were in the opposition and that is the situation. Anyone who talks about replacing Netanyahu… first, there is no practical possibility of doing so; and second, it is not useful to the state of Israel. The question is not who you prefer to be prime minister. That will come at another point.

Q. You talked about Hitler and the Nazis. Comparisons with the Holocaust have been criticized as has Gilad Erdan, Israel’s ambassador to the U.N. over his decision to wear the Star of David. Doesn’t this run the risk of trivializing the Holocaust?

A. No. I criticize those who criticize this. Hamas are Nazis. Their ideology is to destroy Israel and the Jews, therefore they are Nazis.

Q. I didn’t hear the word Nazi used to talk about Hamas until October 7...

A. The only difference between them and the German Nazis are their capabilities. If they had those of Nazi Germany, they would exterminate everyone. They had less, they exterminated those they could. And the same goes for Hezbollah and Iran.

Q. The other difference is that the Jews have a very powerful state and army.

A. The terminology reflects moral and realistic clarity about who we are facing. But using the yellow star is another thing. I wouldn’t have done it. I respect Gilad Erdan, he is my friend, I think his intention was good. But the difference between then and now is that Jews can defend themselves, which they couldn’t do during the Holocaust.

Q. What horizon are you offering to the Palestinians? You are against any withdrawal from the West Bank.

A. Their horizon is that Hamas does not govern in Gaza.

Q. I mean that you have said that they are not going to have their own state. So what can they expect?

A. We will not endanger our safety. If the Palestinians want to change direction, stop the incitement in the education system, the ethos of murdering Jews, the payments to terrorists and their families, we will identify who there is with whom to make peace. We are a people who wants to make peace.

Q. You are asking them to renounce their own state.

A. Look what Israel has done. For peace with Egypt [1979], we returned all the territory. It is very generous to win the war and return territory. Except one thing: Gaza. Egypt didn’t want us to give it back. Think why. But other than that, they wanted every last centimeter. There is nothing to talk about even the smallest concession. Until there is a fundamental change in how they educate children, their stance on terrorism... We decided that there will be no more Palestinian workers. Let them manage, let them develop their economy.

Q. This raises the issue of what is happening in the West Bank and the level of settler violence.

A. No. In Judea and Samaria [the West Bank], the violence is from the Palestinians. Terrorism is from the Palestinians. If there are radicals from our territories who carry out operations, we have to catch them and punish them. It also hurts us that they do this. But the basis is terrorism. As long as there is no education for peace, they will be empty talks that lead to nothing.

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