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WASHINGTON, DC — Egypt supported Israel’s escalation of violence against the Gaza Strip during Operation Cast Lead in 2008 to 2009, a retired Israeli general said at a conference on Monday.
The operation resulted in more than a thousand Palestinian deaths, and many say Israel committed war crimes during the assault.
“When Israel decided to go to Gaza to stop rocket fire, we got — quietly — an Egyptian green light to do so,” retired General Michael Herzog said at the second day of the high-profile American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference.
Herzog served as chief of staff to Israel’s defense minister, Ehud Barak, at the time of the offensive.
“In fact, they even encouraged us to go further and destroy Hamas,” said Herzog, recalling conversations with Egypt’s generals. “They were very clear about their desire that we do the dirty job.”
The policy conference for AIPAC, which works to advance Israel’s interests in Washington, also hosted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday. In his speech, Netanyahu suggested Israel would unilaterally attack Iran’s nuclear facilities if necessary to prevent it from obtaining nuclear capability.
AIPAC, which kicked off its annual policy conference in Washington on 4 March, is one of the most powerful lobbying groups in the United States. This year, a record 13,000 guests — mostly American Jewish participants — are in attendance.
Even before Herzog’s comments, which came during a panel discussion titled “Egypt’s Evolution: Change in the Post-Mubarak Era,” some suspected that Egypt’s government secretly aided Israel against the Palestinians during the military operation.
Egyptian authorities reportedly prevented local and foreign doctors from entering Gaza during the Israeli invasion. The Iranian state news agency Press TV reported that Egypt refused to allow in Iranian aid.
A US government cable from June 2008, released by the whistleblower website WikiLeaks, quoted the Israeli defense minister as saying the Israeli government had “consulted with Egypt and Fatah prior to Operation Cast Lead, asking if they were willing to assume control of Gaza once Israel defeated Hamas.” Barak received a negative reply from the Egyptians, according to the cable.
Since Israel’s offensive ended in 2009, Egypt has continued to coordinate with Israel to impose a blockade on Gaza, keeping out humanitarian and activist groups.
Herzog said that Egypt’s generals, who remain in close dialogue with Israel, repeatedly sound the same message of constraint: “Our hands are not as free as they used to be. [Whereas] in the past we could do whatever we wanted, we [now] have to take into consideration the politics of the street, the Islamists, and so on and so forth.”
He said that if Israel is “faced with a similar situation” in which it feels the need to assault Hamas in Gaza, “this would spark a real crisis in Israeli-Egyptian relations” and threaten their decades-old peace agreement.
According to Herzog, the military’s reduced maneuverability affected the recent NGO crisis, in which 43 NGO workers, including 19 Americans, were indicted for accepting illegal foreign funding and working to foment unrest in Egypt.
“I believe that the military wanted to play a constructive role, but it took them a while until they got the Americans free,” he said. Six of the accused Americans managed to leave the country on Thursday after authorities lifted their travel ban.
Herzog served as Israel’s chief of staff from September 2006 until October 2009 and retired from active duty in August 2010. He is currently the Israel-based Milton Fine International Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel think tank.