Return of the tanks
The motives behind the invasion of Gaza comprise more than just securing the release of a kidnapped Israeli soldier, reports Khalid Amayreh from the West Bank
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SURVIVAL GAME: Palestinian children play on a bridge destroyed yesterday by Israeli warplanes. Israeli planes also attacked a power station, knocking out electricity in Gaza, stepping up the pressure on Palestinian militants holding captive a 19-year-old Israeli soldier
Ignoring international -- including American -- calls for a diplomatic solution to the latest Israeli- Palestinian crisis following the abduction of an Israeli soldier by Palestinian guerillas earlier this week, dozens of Israeli tanks and armored personnel carriers rolled into Gaza before dawn Wednesday.
At the time of going to press the Israeli army had penetrated several kilometres into southern Gaza and taken over the former Gaza airport, thoroughly bulldozed and destroyed by the Israeli army long before last year's redeployment from the Strip.
Backed with armored vehicles and tanks, Israeli soldiers were also deployed in northern Gaza, training their guns towards Beit Hanon and Beit Lahya.
The invasion was preceded by the Israeli air force's bombing of three bridges in central Gaza, originally built through a grant from the European movement.
The operation, dubbed "Summer Rain", was launched after Palestinian guerillas refused to release an Israeli soldier captured during a daring operation against an Israeli army outpost inside Israeli territory, not far from the Israeli border settlement of Karen Shalom.
Two Israeli soldiers and two guerillas were killed in the lightening attack. But what has infuriated the Israeli political and military establishment most is the abduction of the soldier, a 19-year-old corporal, the son of a French immigrant, by the remaining six guerillas who took him into Gaza, hoping to swap him for Palestinian children and women interned in Israeli jails and detention camps.
Israel is believed to be holding as many as 91 Palestinian women and girls, as well as hundreds of children and minors, some without charge or trial.
Speaking shortly after the onset of the invasion, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert warned that Israel would not balk at "extreme action" to retrieve the captive soldier.
The military activity that started overnight, he said, would continue in the coming days.
"We don't intend to reoccupy Gaza. We don't intend to stay there. We have one objective, and that is to bring Gilat home."
While Israel's declared goal is to liberate the captured soldier, many suspect that Olmert will use the opportunity to order his army to assassinate or abduct key Hamas leaders, including government officials such as Prime Minister Ismael Haniya, Foreign Minister Mahmoud Al-Zahar, and Interior Minister Said Siyam, despite the fact that it is almost certain that the Palestinian government does not know the whereabouts of the captured Israeli soldier or the identity of his captors.
The Palestinian Deputy Prime Minister Nassereddin Al-Sha'er has called for the release of the Israeli soldier unharmed. The call was reiterated by Hamas official Adnan Asfour: "We must release the abducted soldier, just as the Palestinian prisoners must be released...If Israel is interested in the safe release of its captured soldier, it must end economic siege, pledge not to invade Gaza and release prisoners."
There is no doubt that a spate of assassinations of Palestinian leaders would have extremely grave consequences in the occupied territories and the region at large, and could result in the collapse of the Palestinian government, and possibly the Palestinian Authority as well.
The tahdia, or calm, meticulously observed by Hamas for the past 18 months, would be shattered, plunging the region into a new wave of violence and bloodshed and consigning whatever remains of the American-backed Roadmap to the graveyard of history.
Some commentators suggest that Israel's real goal in ordering the invasion of Gaza may be to corrode the long-awaited agreement reached on 27 June between Fatah and Hamas.
Under the agreement, all Palestinian factions, save the Islamic Jihad, which registered some reservations over certain items in the Prisoner's Document, agreed to adopt the document, with some minor modifications, as the basis of a unified national political strategy vis-à-vis Israel.
The agreement means that Hamas and Fatah, the two largest political groups in the occupied territories, have adopted a common stand, calling for a viable Palestinian state on all of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. The two groups also agreed that the question of Palestinian refugees be settled in accordance with UN Resolution 194, which calls for repatriation and indemnification of an estimated 4.5 million refugees, now dispersed to the four corners of the globe.
Predictably, while the agreement was greeted with satisfaction among Palestinians at home and the Diaspora, Israel dismissed it as a "non- starter" and an "internal Palestinian affair".
Hardly surprising given that the Prisoners' Document calls for settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict pursuant to the rules of international law and in accordance with UN resolutions, which view the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip as occupied territories that should be returned to the rightful owners.
Israel, however, views these territories as "disputed" and insists on annexing large swathes of occupied land, especially in the Jerusalem area.
In short, Israel wants a "peace" settlement based not on human rights and international law, but rather on the balance of power. It insists that Palestinians be content with whatever Israel gives them and demand nothing more.
The inter-Palestinian agreement, which contains an implicit recognition of Israel within the 4 June 1967 borders, is not, then, going to lead to any breakthrough in the overall situation, not as long as Israel remains absolutely determined to hang on to the spoils of the 1967 War. (see p.6)