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Israel responds to Hamas' weekend assault with airstrikes in Gaza

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We have been covering the Mideast war all morning, and people by now know some basics. A Hamas surprise attack on Saturday killed hundreds of Israelis, including women and children. Israel is still trying to clear militants from its territory and has responded with airstrikes in Gaza, killing hundreds. So what does Israel do now? We are joined next by Ron Dermer. He is a former Israeli ambassador to the United States. He is now Israel's minister for strategic affairs and adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Minister Dermer, welcome back to the program.

RON DERMER: Thank you for having me, Steve.

INSKEEP: There are many aspects of this crisis, and one of them is Israeli hostages, Hamas and Israel using different numbers for how many people have been taken away into Gaza. Do you feel that you know how many prisoners they have taken and who they are or anything about their condition?

DERMER: Well, I'm not sure that Hamas knows the exact number. We don't know yet. We're still trying to sift through that. But there are definitely scores of people who have been kidnapped and are now being held hostage in Gaza, including Americans.

INSKEEP: How, if at all, does concern for their safety shape Israel's response?

DERMER: Well, listen, we had this terrible day two days ago. As I explained in another interview, we're a country of fewer than 10 million people. America's a country of 350 million people. It's around 40 times the size of Israel. When you lose - now we're over 750 people who are confirmed dead, and the number is still rising. When we may get to close to a thousand people or maybe more, when you use that - lose that number of people, that's like 40,000 Americans. It's about 10 9/11s, Steve.

INSKEEP: Understood.

DERMER: And this is what happened two days ago. And obviously, we have to have a very, very forceful response so that everyone understands that this type of savage action - action where you're kidnapping women and children, elderly, you're killing hundreds of people - this is basically a battle of civilization versus barbarism. And I think there's an interest of every civilized country around the world to ensure that Israel wins this fight. The last time we saw something like this, Steve, was when ISIS came out on the stage - you saw that in the trucks - with these fighters wearing the jihadi banners, going in, indiscriminately mowing down people. This is savagery at its worst. We appreciate very much the strong support of President Biden, who has been unequivocal in backing Israel. We appreciate the very strong bipartisan support in the American Congress. And we hope that which is in the very difficult days that we have ahead of us.

INSKEEP: Which is understandable given that civilians clearly were targeted here, which there's no doubt about because they were literally taken away. But now comes the question of that forceful response. I, of course, don't expect you to say what the Israeli military will do in Gaza, but you're the minister for strategic affairs. So let's talk about this in terms of practical effects. What is the overall strategic goal of any Israeli response?

DERMER: Well, we're going to have to cripple the fighting capacity of Hamas and essentially sap their will and the will of anybody looking at this action to conduct such an action in the future. This has to be something that it's going to be remembered for decades by Israel's enemies, by terror organizations around the world, that if you do this type of an action, that you're not going to gain anything from it. You're going to lose everything from it. That's our goal, to demoralize our enemies. Everybody has to see that. We're a country - in Israel - We live in a very dangerous - in Israel - a very dangerous part of the world. We can go from great strength to great vulnerability very, very fast. Our enemies have to understand that we're simply not going to tolerate this. And that message, I'm confident, will be received loud and clear in the days ahead. And the importance here, Steve, is for people who don't want to see this thing happen again to stand with Israel in the next few days, because we're going to have to exact such a heavy price from Hamas - and even the most targeted military action that we take in rooting out terrorists who are in a very - as you know, a very crowded urban area.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

DERMER: I'm sure you've been to Gaza many times before.

INSKEEP: I have been.

DERMER: Even in the most targeted strikes that you can possibly have, you are going to have civilian casualties. And what has happened time after time is people will all of a sudden be with Israel unequivocally at the beginning when we're just victims. But when we fight and we fight to win, all of a sudden the tide turned. It cannot turn now. What we saw yesterday, when you have 10 9/11s - we have to have the unequivocal support of not just the world, but the civilized world.

INSKEEP: Yeah. Yeah. I think you're telling me civilians are going to be killed in Gaza and that is an unavoidable byproduct. Is that your view?

DERMER: It - obviously. In any legitimate warfare, that is an unfortunate and tragic byproduct. But I think it's very important that the ones who are held responsible for this is Hamas, that essentially keep the Palestinian people, many of them, hostage in Gaza to their brutality and their savagery. And I hope we'll do what we can to prevent these civilian casualties. We always do. You know, we drop flyers. We tell people to get out of harm's way. But we cannot tolerate this type of action. Understand, this is not a caliphate thousands of miles away.

INSKEEP: Sure.

DERMER: This is on our border.

INSKEEP: One other question, if I...

DERMER: People crossed, and within two minutes, they got to communities and slaughtered communities. They mowed down people at an outdoor dance festival.

INSKEEP: Which was a - if I may...

DERMER: You had thousands of people there. They're driving and killing them.

INSKEEP: I just got a moment. Minister Dermer...

DERMER: Yes.

INSKEEP: ...If I can. We've just got a moment left. You're emphasizing what a surprise this was. But of course, it's an area that was carefully monitored by Israel for many years. Israel has a lot of military power. What responsibility does the prime minister and his government take for this surprise, what is being described as an intelligence failure?

DERMER: Well, listen, the government is responsible for providing security for our citizens. There'll be a lot of questions to ask. We're going to have to discover exactly what happened, what mistakes were made to ensure that this doesn't happen again. But frankly, Steve, this is not the time for it. This is a time where we have to stand united as a country. We have to get the support of the civilized world to do what we have to do in order to restore security and send a message to not just the terrorists who threaten us...

INSKEEP: In a few seconds...

DERMER: ...The terrorists who threaten you.

INSKEEP: ...Do you feel that you have the intelligence now that you know what Hamas is up to, that you know where their leaders are, that you know what you need to know, in a few seconds?

DERMER: I'm confident in our military and our intelligence services, that they may have caught us in the back foot at the beginning. But Israel - believe me, Israel will fight. There are a lot of people who discounted Israel, who miscalculated when it comes to attacks on Israel, who thought we were weak. And they found out a very, very different story. It's 50 years after 1973, after the Yom Kippur War.

INSKEEP: Right.

DERMER: There was a surprise attack against us. But by the end of that war, it was a very different picture. And I think you're going to see the same thing today.

INSKEEP: Ron Dermer is Israel's minister for strategic affairs. Thank you very much, sir.

DERMER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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