The extensive Hamas rocket fire from Gaza over the past month has made it difficult to justify withdrawing from the West Bank as part of a future peace deal with the Palestinians, former Israeli President Shimon Peres said in an interview with the BBC that aired Wednesday.
"I was for the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza," Peres told the BBC's Wyre Davies. "When I did it, I thought, 'My God, we are going to relieve the Gazan people.' We offered them the best, without any conditions; we didn’t ask for anything in return."
When Israelis asked what would happen if the Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip were to open fire on Israel, Peres recalled, he said, "Look, why should they?"
Now that Israel's 2005 withdrawal from Gaza has been followed by years of rocket fire from the Strip – primarily on southern Israel in the past, but targeting much of the country in the recent fighting – it is becoming increasingly difficult to argue that Israel should withdraw from its settlements in the West Bank as well, Peres said.
"Now I have my problem to explain," Peres said. "They say, 'Why did you agree to it?' And they furthermore say, 'If we shall do it in the West Bank, it may happen the same.'"
Peres, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 for his role in the Oslo Accords and ended his term as Israeli president last month, told the BBC he did not support right-wing politicians' suggestions that Israel go back into Gaza and continue fighting Hamas until the army emerges victorious.
"I don't think it will be necessary, and I think we should look for a better solution than that," he said. "We don’t want to raise the flames. We don’t want to increase the number of victims. Who wants it?"
Peres said Israel has "nothing against the Palestinian people" but that the movement that controls the Gaza Strip stands for terrorism.
Hamas, he said, is against negotiations, against talking and against peace. "They are for terror," he said.
"I seek peace," said Peres. "I don't seek war. I don’t want to kill anybody. For me, when I see a child being killed it’s a tragedy, a human tragedy.
Discussing Israel's withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, when the country pulled out troops and evacuated settlements despite intense domestic opposition, Peres said the Palestinians could have developed the Strip but chose to fire rockets instead.
"Look, we left Gaza willingly, unilaterally," Peres said. "We handed over to the Palestinians a free, open Gaza. Which is a beautiful strip of a beautiful beach. They could have developed it for tourism, for fishing, for agriculture. We don't understand, frankly, why are they fighting? What are they shooting? What are the reasons? We left. What is the purpose? They want to be free? They are free."
All the same, Peres remains optimistic.
"You know, 50 years ago, nobody here believed that we shall ever have peace with Egypt. We have," he said. "Nobody believed that we shall have peace with Jordan before Syria. We have. Nobody believed that we could do anything with Arafat. We did. So all the pessimists have a short memory and all the optimists have a long memory and a good hope."
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