The Korea Herald


[Herald Interview] Israel will fight Hamas with every effort to protect civilians: envoy

By Kim Arin

Published : Oct. 19, 2023 - 21:15

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Akiva Tor, the Jerusalem ambassador to South Korea, speaks during an interview with The Korea Herald at the Israeli Embassy in Seoul on Thursday. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald) Akiva Tor, the Jerusalem ambassador to South Korea, speaks during an interview with The Korea Herald at the Israeli Embassy in Seoul on Thursday. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

Israel will be guided by NATO standards that uphold protection of civilians in armed conflicts as it fights Hamas -- the Islamist militant movement that controls Gaza --, Jerusalem’s top envoy in Seoul said Thursday.

“Israel will respect the human rights, the history and the presence of Palestinians in the region. It is Hamas we are in a war against,” Akiva Tor, the Israeli ambassador, said in an interview with The Korea Herald.

And in the war against Hamas Israel was “going to fight like a NATO army,” he said. “We’re going to do our very best to avoid collateral damage of civilians.”

When US President Joe Biden told Israel to avoid the mistakes his country made with 9/11 in his one-day visit to Tel Aviv, the envoy said the message was “understood and well-received” by Israel.

“He doesn’t want Israel to act out of revenge and anger. He asked Israel to respect the humanitarian needs of the Gazan population and to carry out operations with minimal collateral damage. And that’s clear,” he said. “I’m certain that’s how we will act.”

That being said, the envoy said that in the struggle to put Israeli deterrence back in place, appeasing Hamas was not the answer.

“One of the lessons of the 20th century is that appeasement does not work,” he said. ” In other words, the way to peace is not to appease bad actors with aggressive, bully-like behaviors and no moral or ethical restraints.”

Israel planned on engaging in what was the opposite of appeasement, he said, explaining, “Which means when someone wants to destroy you, you don’t allow them to maintain that capacity.”

Tor said not expecting Hamas to have the capacity to be “irrational” was “the root of the error” in the Israeli intelligence authorities’ failure to see the attacks coming.

“Israeli intelligence had a conceptual error. We knew Hamas to be an extremely hostile, extremely cruel organization, but essentially rational,” he said. Rational meaning that it would be driven to make calculated choices.

Since Hamas established its rule in 2007, Gaza has gone through recurring episodes of severe conflict, punctuated by periods of relative cease-fire. Hamas has held Israelis prisoners and fired rockets, but Israel could respond with limited operations, inflicting “just enough damage to stop them,” he said. Plus, the government in Israel has been making deliberate efforts to improve the standards of living in Gaza over the years.

If not for the well-being of residents of Gaza, the envoy said that the organization’s interest in survival would preclude it from making irrational decisions, or so Israel had thought. The rationale behind the terror attacks was “hard to understand,” especially as “at the end of the day, Hamas won’t survive this,” he said.

“We had many contacts with Hamas in the past unofficially,” he said. “In the Israeli conception, I don’t think we believed that Hamas would break through the border and massacre hundreds and hundreds of people.”

The Oct. 7 attacks shifted Israel’s perception of Hamas as being more akin to ISIS or Daesh. Prior to the latest atrocities, Israel “had not conceived of Hamas an “ISIS-type enemy,” he said. That has now changed.

Tor said that this was why allowing Hamas to rule or take over the West Bank would mean “no hope” for an independent Palestinian state. “We cannot accept a Palestinian state that is dominated by an ISIS-like body,” he said.

As of the latest count, the Palestinian militant organization is responsible for the attacks against Israel on Oct. 7 that killed more than 1,400 and some 200 being held hostage.

On South Korean speculations of the potential use of North Korean weapons by Hamas in its attacks in the Gaza Strip, the rogue country’s ties with Iran was what is more worrying for Israel, according to Tor.

While stressing that he does not have “any evidence” of direct North Korean involvement in this particular conflict, he said he “would not be surprised” if there were, when asked about a South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff official suggesting North Korea’s possible links with Hamas.

“I’m not able to confirm it officially. ... But I wouldn’t be surprised because Gaza is full of war materials brought in, smuggled in from many places,” he said. “In the past, there have been many reports of the presence of weapons or ammunition of North Korean manufacturer in Gaza.”

What is “of greater significance” for Israel was the relationship between North Korea and Iran, he said. “I’m more concerned about the North Korea-Iran connection -- two rogue states with nuclear and missile ambitions.”

Israel thought of Iran, regarded by some western democracies as potential commercial partner, as a “very bad actor,” he said.

“Iran is a very strong supporter of Hamas, providing an estimated 90 percent of the organization’s military budget. Even though Hamas is Sunni radical and Iran is Shia radical, they are in very close connection,” he said. “So we feel their aggressive projection of power by way of proxy.”

While carefully adding that he could “not point to evidence of direct Iranian links to this particular attack,” he said the kind of forces that Iran is supporting “should not be ignored” by US-aligned democracies and like-minded states.

He said that the South Korean government “has been very strongly supportive of Israel” in the wake of the attacks by Hamas. “I can just say that the cooperation in communication between Israel and Korea is deep in widespread,” he said.

He said some members of South Korea’s National Assembly have reached out to him, with more plans in the works between the Israeli embassy and the Assembly’s foreign affairs committee. The speaker of the South Korean parliament Kim Jin-pyo on Wednesday spoke with his Israeli counterpart Amir Ohana on Wednesday, the details of which were not available at the time of writing.

South Korea has decided to provide $2 million worth of humanitarian aid for civilian victims in Gaza, according to Seoul’s Foreign Ministry on Thursday.

The envoy said that Israel would like South Korea to designate Hamas as a terrorist organization, the same way the US and the European Union have.

“Japan, which doesn’t have such a thing as a terrorist designation, found a way to put sanctions on Hamas. I would hope that the same thing will happen in South Korea,” he said. The designation would not only have practical implications, such as barring Hamas from business transactions here, but also symbolic significance, he explained.

He said that in the difficult days that lie ahead, Israel will need the continued support of its allies.

“There eventually will be attempts in the United Nations to criticize Israel, and we will need our friends to stand up for us,” he said.

To certain factions of South Korean progressives who have reacted to the Hamas attacks by condemning Israel and voicing support for Palestinian independence, he said that supporters of the rights of Palestinians to a state “should be supporting the war against Hamas.”

He said for the majority of progressives in South Korea and elsewhere, their response to the Hamas-led massacres of Israelis has been shock.

“Israel can be criticized like every other state, and at times it is deserving of criticism. But for anyone who stands for human rights, not calling out the serious abuses perpetrated by Hamas is very selective morality,” he said.

He added that individuals and groups all across the political spectrum here were an “important audience” for him, and that he wished to “make Israel’s case” the best he can.

“I hope that they understand Israel is in a fight for our lives.”