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Israel is at war and focused on eliminating Hamas, Israel's Ehud Barak says

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In the face of the extraordinary attack on southern Israel this past weekend, Israel's long divided government has agreed to govern together. An emergency unity government and a wartime cabinet were formed in response to the gruesome assault by Hamas fighters who killed at least 1,300 people in Israel and took hostages back to Gaza, including children and the elderly. Israel has responded with a barrage of airstrikes, and now more than 1,350 people in Gaza are now dead and some 5,800 are wounded - that according to health officials in Gaza. Israel has now called up hundreds of thousands of reservists, apparently in preparation for a possible ground offensive. At this critical moment, we turn to former Prime Minister of Israel, Ehud Barak. Mr. Prime Minister, thank you for taking the time.

EHUD BARAK: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So, Prime Minister, there's going to be plenty of time to look backwards, but if - just one question about how this happened. You are a former general, a former Israel Defense Forces chief of the general staff. How did this happen?

BARAK: It's a major failure of our intelligence and major failure of our operational response. And the failures go up to the top of the political leadership. But all these should be clarified once the shooting ends. We are now at war, and we are focused on eliminate any operational capabilities of Hamas whatsoever and, in this regard, change the surrounding threats from the Gaza Strip, and we are defined species. We are united in - at war and in any threatening crisis, and we will win.

MARTIN: I see. So forgive me, your phone line is a little difficult at the moment, so onto my next question. Mr. Prime Minister, you led the Labor Party for years. You're now with the Israel Democratic Party. Of course, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is with a different party, the Likud Party. One assumes that the point of a coalition is to assert unity at a time like this, as you just mentioned. But is there a way in which you hope, excuse me, that the coalition might shape the next steps of the response?

BARAK: Yeah, it's not the unity government. It's emergency government. They probably put into (ph) extremely weak cabinet. Netanyahu has a coalition of extreme right-wingers, and there are very few people who understand anything about security. So it - the emergency cabinet added two former chiefs of staff, one of them even former Defense Minister Gantz and Eizenkot. And it adds a lot of experience and common sense and a kind of coolheaded decision-making to this, the leading of the war especially. It's a need, urgent need of the forces who are going to fight. As you mentioned, we mobilized over 300,000 reservists, and to the - to our population to sleep better at night because Netanyahu has experience, but he lost the trust of the people following this big, big blunder of these events and whatever have led to it.

MARTIN: So you're saying that Netanyahu has lost the confidence of the people. The purpose of this unity government is to assure the citizens that the best minds are at work here. Is that correct?

BARAK: Not exactly. It's basically the second element. It's made for - first of all, objectively, it made a much more kind of a cabinet with a gravitas there for people there who understand what's meant to won a war. And that gives confidence to the public and especially to the forces who are going probably to end up in battle, in short - a relatively short time. So the political aspect - if there was (ph) - I don't think that it's proper to discuss it too intensively right now.

MARTIN: I understand.

BARAK: We have to focus on war. I am a harsh critique of Netanyahu all along the recent years, and it will not disappear. The moment the fire will stop or shooting would stop, the whole issues, the political issues and underlying (ph) heavy burdens with Netanyahu's government will emerge.

MARTIN: So let's turn to the situation on the ground here. Israel, as we have reported, has cut off power, water, food, electricity to the Gaza Strip. The power plant in Gaza is now out of fuel. The question emerges, is that there are many civilians there who have nothing to do with Hamas. One could argue that they are also hostages. Elections haven't been held there in 16 years, so one cannot argue that Hamas has any kind of a mandate there. Is the Israeli government willing to ensure the safety of civilians?

BARAK: Yeah. We are unlike the Hamas, who's a murderous, barbarian organization, a kind of Daesh or ISIS-like organization which should be eliminated from the - from this region. But having said that, of course, there are civilians there whose losses or burden we are trying to minimize. But it's a tough, tough operation taken under many, many constraints, and one of them is the need to follow the international law. And we are committed to the international law. We are a democracy, and we are accountable to international bodies. And we will try our best to achieve our objective while taking into account the international laws.

MARTIN: Is there an opportunity to provide safe passage for civilians, including members of other nationalities who are trapped in Gaza? Is that something that is being considered?

BARAK: I think looking at one negotiation over the radio, but I'm sure that any government who has such a problem in the - not just letting citizens of all nationalities out, but even to make sure that, for example, some essentials of treatment of a hospital will not be in short supply or milk for babies. I don't think that we are trying to block this kind of element of humanitarian basics.

MARTIN: That is the former prime minister of Israel, Ehud Barak. Mr. Barak, it is indeed an honor to speak with you at this time. Thank you for taking the time.

BARAK: Thank you. And maybe we can hope for better days in the future.

MARTIN: I do hope so. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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