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Israel increases operations in Gaza to achieve its stated goal of destroying Hamas


As we've been reporting, Israel expanded its operations in Gaza over the weekend, and we have next reached a senior Israeli official. Ron Dermer is Israel's minister of strategic affairs and an observer of Israel's war cabinet, a very small group that is making the biggest decisions on the war. Minister Dermer, welcome back.

RON DERMER: Good to be with you, Steve.

INSKEEP: I'll just remind people, you've said the stated goal is to destroy Hamas. President Biden has supported that but also has urged you to minimize the loss of civilian life in Gaza, and you face fears of a wider war. How hard has it been in the war cabinet to clarify a strategy that you think will do all of those things?

DERMER: Well, we have a very difficult enemy, and - but we're just going to have to achieve our goal, which, as you said, is to eliminate Hamas' military capability, to end its rule of Gaza, essentially to free Gaza from Hamas, and to make sure that the Gaza Strip doesn't pose a threat to Israel. I think United States shares that goal. They - we also share a desire to do whatever we can to keep civilians out of harm's way.

I'm glad to say that the fighting that's in the north that is going on now, as our military is there - we've had most of the civilians - about 90% of the civilians have left the areas that we're fighting. So there were fewer and fewer civilians in those areas. They've moved to the south, where they can get humanitarian assistance and get out of harm's way. As you know, it's been very difficult because Hamas does everything it can to put the civilians in harm's way, to use them as human shields. But right now, in the north, in the areas that we're operating, about 90% of the civilians have left.

INSKEEP: I do want to mention, though, you're telling people to flee to southern Gaza as a safe zone. It seems clear to us from accounts on the ground that it's not a safe zone. Our own producer in Gaza reports numerous strikes in the south. Why is Israel striking in what it tells people is a safe zone?

DERMER: Well, we didn't say that all of southern part of Gaza is a safe zone. There is a safe zone there in one particular part of Gaza on the coastline where people have gone. You have humanitarian assistance that are flowing there. We're ramping up that humanitarian assistance over the next few days. We are actually working with the administration closely because there are other partners in making sure that humanitarian assistance can get there, including Egypt, the Red Cross, the World Health Organization. So it's not the entire southern Gaza Strip, but there are areas in the south where people can go, and they will have a humanitarian safe haven there. And we see that more and more people are going there, and I think that's a good thing - to keep these Palestinian civilians out of harm's way and to not allow Hamas to use them as human shields.

INSKEEP: Have you made any adjustments in your approach in response to President Biden's appeals to minimize civilian casualties knowing, as you do, that the casualties, in addition to being terrible for themselves, diminish support for your effort?

DERMER: Well, listen, Israel goes to great lengths to ensure that the civilians of our enemy are out of harm's way. I don't think any other country in the history of the world has done that. Remember - and it's important for your listeners to remember - we're not fighting a war thousands of miles away. We're fighting against a terror organization right on our border. It's hundreds of yards away, not thousands of miles away. And we are carefully doing what we can now as our army is advancing to get the civilians...

INSKEEP: I'm just wondering if you...

DERMER: ...Out of harm's way. We've had...

INSKEEP: ...Limited your approach at all in response to the appeals to do that.

DERMER: Well, we share the same goal, as I said, and we also share a belief that we should keep civilians out of harm's way. I can tell you that the Biden administration, from Day 1, has been seized of this matter. They have constantly raised it. What can we do in order to get these civilians out of harm's way? They've discussed it with us. We listen to them. We're trying to do everything we can to get that humanitarian assistance flowing and to get those civilians out of harm's way. So - but I think overall - listen, we're two democratic countries that care about human life, and we're fighting an enemy that doesn't care about human life at all. And that's why we have to do whatever we can to free Gaza from Hamas once and for all. I think that's not only going to be critical for Israel because of the massacre and atrocities that they perpetrated on October 7, but it's also going to be critical for the civilian population in Gaza, the innocent...

INSKEEP: Let me...

DERMER: ...Palestinians in Gaza.

INSKEEP: Let me ask about the...

DERMER: We're not going to ultimately help them unless we can get rid of Hamas that uses them as a tool in their war against Israel.

INSKEEP: You've said you want someone else to rule in Gaza. You want to end Hamas' rule in Gaza. There was a leaked policy paper a couple of weeks ago that talked of reloading - relocating Palestinians out of Gaza entirely to Egypt. I know that Israel has since said that was a preliminary idea, but it raises the question - if you eliminate Hamas' rule in Gaza, what comes next? Who runs the place, and who gets to live there?

DERMER: Well, what I think is clear is we don't want Hamas to be in Gaza. Also, Israel doesn't want to rule Gaza, so we have to find another path. But there's - one thing is clear to everybody, that unless we actually take out Hamas in Gaza, remove them from the scene, we're never going to actually get to a better solution in the future. The key for us moving ahead, the key to us finding a solution to all the problems of Gaza, first and foremost, begins with defeating Hamas- defeating it militarily and defeating it politically and making sure that that territory is not used to threaten Israel and that we would never see the types of attacks that we saw in October 7, which - as you know, 1,500 people were murdered. Given Israel's size, it's about 20 9/11s. We have to take action to make sure that this is not just another round, that this round is the last round. And that's why we have...

INSKEEP: Just...

DERMER: ...To remove Hamas. It's good for Israel. It's good for the Palestinians. And ultimately, I believe, Steve, it will be good for peace in the region.

INSKEEP: In a couple of seconds, do you not know who would run Gaza after Hamas is deposed?

DERMER: I - we're thinking about that now, but we do think it's a little bit premature. I'm sure, as the war unfolds, people will think more and more as we get closer to achieving that victory that we all have to achieve for everybody in the region - I think there will be more and more thinking about what the day after should look like. And we're eager to begin that conversation, but the time is not now. We're thinking about it, but it's still a bit premature. First, we have to win. We have to make sure that Hamas is defeated. And I think that's going to open up many possibilities of a better future for Israelis, Palestinians and for everybody who cares about peace in the region.

INSKEEP: Ron Dermer is Israel's minister of strategic affairs and is in Israel's war cabinet as an observer. Mr. Dermer, thanks so much, as always.

DERMER: Thank you.

INSKEEP: And, of course, he's speaking to us here from Israel, where we're reporting today. And Daniel Estrin, our Israel correspondent, is beside me and was listening in. What did you hear there, Daniel?

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: You know, I heard, Steve, that Ron Dermer spoke about Israel's great lengths to get people out of harm's way into southern Gaza. He said not the entire area of southern Gaza is a safe zone. But, in fact, repeatedly, Israel has published maps telling people that entire area south of what's called Wadi Gaza is safe, and, in fact, it's not safe. There have been repeated bombings there. And, of course, we also heard that the idea is to remove Hamas and then figure out who replaces it later. President Biden, as we know, has asked tough questions. Who will replace Hamas?

INSKEEP: Another notable thing that he said there - Israel, he says, cannot or will not help civilians too much until Hamas is removed. Daniel, thank you so much.

ESTRIN: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Daniel Estrin. And, of course, earlier we heard from Ron Dermer, Israel's minister of strategic affairs, one of many voices we're hearing as we report today live from Israel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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