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Former Mossad official says to secure Israel, you have to destroy Hamas

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It can feel a little surreal to wander this city these days. On the one hand, people are out riding bikes, pushing baby strollers, swimming in the sun. On the other hand, you sit down at a restaurant, start to order and air raid sirens go off.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIR RAID SIRENS WAILING)

KELLY: You can hear the Iron Dome, Israel's missile defense system, kick in and shoot the incoming from the sky. Everyone waits a minute for the shrapnel to fall, and then they wander back outside to cafe tables and resume ordering wine and salads. This disconnect - people trying to carry on with normal life in what are not remotely normal times - this is the new reality here in Israel one month after Hamas attacked on October 7. For the officials charged with protecting Israel, a reckoning is underway. How did they fail to see the attacks coming? And does this moment still feel dangerous?

ZOHAR PALTI: Not dangerous - disappointment, trauma, shock, embarrassment. I can find a lot of vocabulary to describe what we feel right now, but not dangerous. We are so strong.

KELLY: This is Zohar Palti, former director of intelligence of the spy agency the Mossad. He invited us to his home in Tel Aviv the other day to talk about how this war started, then how it ends.

Talk to me about where we are in the cycle of where this goes next in Gaza. Israel's military says they have now encircled Gaza City - it's a city under siege - that they are hitting hundreds of targets - Hamas targets - every day in Gaza. Where are we in this thing?

PALTI: First of all, it's too soon, a bit too new, and I will tell you why. Because, first of all, we have 242 hostages in Gaza - something like 30 children under the age of 16. We have children over there that saw their parents' massacre in front of their eyes, and right now they are in a dark tunnel in Gaza, holding by the Hamas without parents. We have Holocaust survivor. We have women, children, old people, soldiers. We have everything over there. And we have a mission to bring them back. We have dozens of thousands of people right now that just left their houses near the border with Gaza. So we need to restore, first of all, deterrence and to bring back sense of security - not only security, only the sense of security. People will go back to their houses, and we will build them back. So it's only the beginning of the campaign over here right now of this war. And we'll have to...

KELLY: Beginning of the campaign.

PALTI: It's only the beginning.

KELLY: And you just elevated the hostages above any other priority in terms of what happens next in Gaza, which interests me because I have heard some others saying, as awful as it is that these hostages are there, they are in danger, there's a bigger priority, and it's protecting Israel from this ever happening again.

PALTI: So it's true. It goes simultaneously. And everybody is asking me regarding this issue. And I'm saying, guys, I don't - I'm not familiar in the last 40 years that I was dealing with security and operation on all these issues, meaning there is no formula for that. I'm not sure that somebody have a solution for that - I mean, that you know how to solve this issue right now. So we have right now...

KELLY: The hostage issue, you mean?

PALTI: It's not just the hostage - and the other question that you asked me regarding the priority. And to - let's say, to deal with the Hamas issue and to take them down. What's come first - this or that? As a serious people, we have to figure out how to do it simultaneously. And if we will understand that we are not able to do it, it seems to me that from moral point of view, as a free country, first and foremost, we have the obligation to our civilians. But then again, we'll have to take Hamas down because we can't live with a threat like that.

KELLY: If the goal is to take down Hamas, to crush Hamas, my question is, is that actually possible? You will know, as well as I, what the U.S. faced after 9/11 when the goal was to crush al-Qaida and all of the questions that raised. Are you creating as many terrorists as you're killing?

PALTI: Not that - I think it's apple and oranges to compare the campaign that you have done all over the world, regarding...

KELLY: How so?

PALTI: ...To take - so large. Over here, it's local. It's tough. It's a different difficulty. It's a different environment. Meaning, it's apple and oranges what.

KELLY: But even if you kill every single fighter - Hamas fighter - in Gaza, the sentiment doesn't go away, the idea.

PALTI: So the issue is not to kill each one of them. The issue is very much - and you give, I think, a great - an example over here - guys, you won the war on terrorism. You, in the last decades, kill all the leadership of al-Qaida, ISIS and Daesh. How you define winning over here - when you don't have a September 11 anymore, thank God. Our winning will be that Hamas won't be able to carry on a vicious attack like that again, ever, on civilians in the morning - this is one. And another, let's say, to definition of victory, is to bring the Israeli back home. And more than that - that we will build all the villages and all those kibbutzim back. And all the people will go back to live there in better houses, in better environment, and they will feel safe. That's what I call victory.

KELLY: All the people, meaning Palestinians?

PALTI: Not Palestinian. I don't care about the Palestinians. I care about the Israelis right now, that are right now...

KELLY: What happens to them, though?

PALTI: They're all over Israel. They're living in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem 'cause they don't have houses. We have thousands of Israelis that evacuate their homes right now because of this vicious attack. So with all due respect, my first priority is to the Israeli one. Later on, we will deal also with the poor Palestinians over there.

KELLY: But what do you say to the Palestinian whose family home goes back generations, and that's where it is? It's in Gaza.

PALTI: They choose Hamas. There is consequences for that.

KELLY: There hasn't been an election in many years.

PALTI: That's right.

KELLY: Is it clear they're choosing Hamas?

PALTI: Probably, yes. We saw the polls. We saw the public opinion. And by the way, with all due respect, right now, after this vicious attack, my sympathy first and foremost is with Israelis because I'm a patriot to Israel. Secondly, I will talk to them about when we will solve the issues of the hostages in Gaza, and we will bring back our people back to their homes, and we'll build them. Then I'm willing to consider to think about others. But my first priority is to our interest.

KELLY: Am I correct in thinking that much of Hamas' leadership is hanging out in Doha, in Qatar?

PALTI: No, not all of them.

KELLY: But some?

PALTI: Sure.

KELLY: If the goal is to crush them, why are they hanging out, and publicly enough that I know about it as an American journalist? Why hasn't Israel done something about that?

PALTI: You can't do everything simultaneously. As we say...

KELLY: They've been there a while.

PALTI: ...In the region, we're not going anywhere. One day we'll reach that as well.

KELLY: Zohar Palti was head of the intelligence directorate at Mossad, and we've been speaking with him at his kitchen table here in Tel Aviv. Thank you.

PALTI: Thank you so much.

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

And he's one of many voices - Israeli, Palestinian and from the wider region - that we're hearing from this week, as Mary Louise and her team continue their reporting from the Middle East. 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.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.

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