These are trying times for Israel as it struggles to respond to rocket attacks by the militant Islamist Hamas group, which rules neighboring Gaza, in measures that hold popular support at home, but are questioned in many world quarters.
That means a busy time here for Israel’s embassy and for Ehud Eitam, its ambassador to Costa Rica, also part of that court of world opinion.
A June 2008 ceasefire between Israel and Hamas ended in December with the launching of Hamas rockets into southern Israel.
A three-week military assault by Israel has left 1,300 Palestinians dead. Despite a Jan. 21 ceasefire, sporadic attacks continue in both directions.
During his tenure, which began in August 2006, Eitam, 53, has witnessed two significant changes in Costa Rica’s 60-year relations with his country.
First, while Israel maintains its capital in Jerusalem, most countries keep their embassies in Tel Aviv, insisting that Jerusalem’s status has yet to be determined. Costa Rica had stayed in Jerusalem, but followed the rest of the world’s lead in 2006.
Second, Costa Rica recognized Palestinian statehood last year, with accreditation of an ambassador last month. (TT, Jan. 23) Eitam sat down with The Tico Times last week at the embassy to discuss Gaza, prospects for peace, Costa Rican-Israeli relations and Tuesday’s elections.
TT: “Disproportionate” is the term used in many quarters to describe Israel’s response to the Hamas rocket attacks. Is that a fair assessment?
EE: International law defines conditions for military actions to be proportionate. The target should be a military target, and the benefit of the military operation should exceed the damage inflicted. Israel never attacks a place that doesn’t qualify as a military object. Sometimes there is collateral damage, but this is certainly never intentional.
It is very difficult to see the suffering of the civilian population. We (take) maximum care in terms of combat. With all the criticism, I’ve never heard anybody offer Israel advice on what it could do. What, militarily, is our alternative?
The real blame should be put on Hamas. Not only does it fire missiles arbitrarily on Israel to hit civilians, it also exposes its population to danger on purpose. It uses them as human shields in order to achieve two things: either that Israel refrains from action, or when Israel does take action, to cause as much damage to its population and to damage Israel’s image abroad.
How do you effectively combat that? It’s not a conventional war.
Israel tries to use the most sophisticated, surgical means possible. The fact that Israel’s military is far more developed, we try to use it not to overcome by quantity, but quality, in order to avoid damage to the civilian population.
We try to see that our rockets are used (only in) the very close vicinity of the military object. Israel tries to limit the extensive result or impact.
(In the incident at the United Nations school,) fire was opened from inside or very nearby by Hamas. Israel fired back and there were casualties. But if Israel had wanted to attack the building, nothing would have remained of the building. You try to analyze it, not only from the belly, but from the head. Unfortunate errors occur. We are the first ones to be sorry for it. This is part of the war that is being forced on Israel by Hamas.
Do Israel’s actions risk inflaming the radical elements of Palestinian society and marginalizing the Palestinian Authority? Is this a public relations battle Israel can win?
Hundreds of thousands of Israelis live in extreme anxiety. They have 15 seconds to escape to a shelter. You come to a point where you say, enough is enough. The obligation of every government is to defend its population.
For the Palestinians, Israel is perceived as a direct enemy. After some time, we hope the majority will align with Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority. We have been negotiating with them to arrive at a solution of two states, not one on top of the other, not one instead of the other.
Hamas does not recognize our existence. It is committed officially to the destruction of Israel. They used the six months (of ceasefire) to increase their production of rockets and smuggling of weapons from Iran. The situation was going to escalate rapidly in coming months. Our operation had to be extensive.
The international community, including the moderate Arab states (Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia), wants to block the fundamentalists backed by Iran. The effort of Israel, which is backed implicitly by its Arab neighbors, is not to allow Hamas to get power. We are in a struggle of moderates versus extremists in the Middle East.
Your predecessor in this post, Alexander Ben Zvi, spoke of the “special relationship” between Costa Rica and Israel. Does that warm bond still exist?
The (Arias) government said very openly that it was going to conduct a different approach to foreign relations. That included moving closer to the Arab world. We accept that. We may have some differences in opinion with some of (its) actions, but overall, Costa Rica is still a very good friend of Israel.
The government of Costa Rica also sees eye to eye with us on the situation now. I think they know who is to blame for the recent attacks.
The 60 years of special relations go far, far beyond one or another political decision of the government. It has created a special intimacy on all levels of society between Costa Rica and Israel.
What does a new administration in the U.S. mean for prospects for peace?
President Obama has a good understanding of the situation we confront. When he visited Israel last summer, he said that if someone fired on his daughters, he would take every step to defend them. We expect the new administration will do its utmost to reach a peaceful solution in the Middle East. The change of government does not change that. It’s the basic goal of the United States.
As a government employee, are you permitted to speculate publicly about the Feb. 10 parliamentary elections?
We have three main parties, (with) extremely experienced politicians. Israel’s national interests are very well known to all them. The general policies of Israel – security and a peaceful solution – are common to all. From the polls that we see, none of them is going to win with such a margin that will allow it to form a government without at least one of the other parties.