Al-Ahram Weekly Online   29 June - 5 July 2006
Issue No. 801
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Between violence and diplomacy

Israel overruns Gaza in its anger over the kidnap of an Israeli soldier, reports Khaled Amayreh from Gaza

Click to view caption
Israeli soldiers watch as smoke rises during a controlled explosion set off by the occupation forces to seal the tunnel used by Palestinian resistance fighters to carry out an attack on an Israeli military post near Kibbutz Kerem Shalom

As this report was being prepared on Tuesday afternoon, the Israeli army was threatening to overrun Gaza and cut off electricity, water and food supplies to its estimated 1.3 million inhabitants. By dawn on Wednesday, the Israeli army had already occupied Gaza International Airport and several other parts of the Gaza Strip.

The Israeli army had already imposed a hermetic blockade of the Gaza Strip, demanding the immediate release of an Israeli soldier taken prisoner by Palestinian resistance fighters who, on Sunday 25 June, attacked an Israeli army outpost at Keren Shalom near Rafah. Two guerillas and two Israeli soldiers were killed in the attack, in addition to four other Israeli troops injured, one seriously, during the gun battle that lasted no more than five minutes.

The fighters, reportedly affiliated with the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC) and Hamas's military wing, the Ezzeddin Al-Qassam Brigades, slipped into the Israeli outpost via a 530-metre-long tunnel, attacking it with RPG and destroying a tank. Having succeeded in taking the Israelis by surprise, the guerillas took with them as they withdrew to Gaza a young Israeli army corporal who apparently froze of fear, seeing his two comrades burn to death inside their armoured vehicle.

Furious beyond reason, the Israeli military and political establishment used every threatening word in the lexicon, vowing, among other things, to assassinate Palestinian Prime Minister Ismael Haniya, destroy his home, and murder all Palestinian leaders if the soldier was not released. One Israeli politician called on the government to turn Haniya's home into a parking lot.

The threats were not merely verbal. The Israeli army massed hundreds of tanks just outside the Gaza Strip from Beit Hanun in the north to Rafah in the south, threatening to "crush Gaza" and "finish the terrorists".

Of course, the Palestinian guerilla attack was by no means an act of terror, even by the tendentious American standard. It was an act of resistance targeting a blood-stained occupation army who this month alone murdered as many as 40 Palestinians.

The huge list of victims includes an entire family picnicking on the Gaza beach on 9 June, three children in downtown Gaza a few days later, and a pregnant woman and her brother -- a physician who was visiting from Saudi Arabia -- who were killed last week when an air-to- ground missile hit their home as they were having dinner.

In short, Israel wants to slaughter and maim as many Palestinian families, children, and civilians as it can. When the tormented Palestinians seek to defend themselves with whatever meager and primitive means under their disposal, the Israelis become furious and threaten to crush them and turn Gaza into smithereens.

It was obvious from the onset that the abduction of the soldier was intended to pressure Israel into releasing Palestinian children and women languishing in Israeli jails, mostly on concocted charges based on false confessions extracted by way of torture and coercion. According to Israeli figures, there are as many as 95 Palestinian women (one woman gave birth in jail recently) and over 313 children in Israeli jails and detention camps. The release of these detainees seems to be the main goal for the group of guerillas holding the captured Israeli soldier.

"The occupation (Israel) will not get any information about its missing soldier unless it abides by the following: release all female prisoners in Israeli jails, and children under the age of 18," read a leaflet issued by Hamas's military wing, the Ezzeddin Al-Qassam Brigades.

So far, Israeli leaders have ruled out any negotiations with the captors, or even the Palestinian Authority, suggesting that such negotiations would compromise Israeli deterrence. Furthermore, it would encourage Palestinian fighters to continue kidnapping Israelis in order to swap them for Palestinian political prisoners held in Israeli jails.

"This is not a matter of negotiations, this is not a matter of bargaining," cried Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in a speech before a Jewish Agency gathering in West Jerusalem. In an arrogant tone resembling that of his predecessor, the still-comatose Ariel Sharon, Olmert vowed to crush the Palestinians.

"I say here that we will respond to every terrorist, every terrorist organisation, in every place they are found...and you know and they know that we know how to reach them even in remote locations..."

Olmert went on: "From now, according to instructions given by myself and the defense minister, Gaza is sealed off by sea and land. No one goes out and no one comes in. This is the first step in a series of steps that we are considering."

Of course, Olmert's saber rattling shouldn't be taken lightly. The former Likud extremist knows quite well that only by shedding Palestinian blood and producing gruesome scenes, such as the Ghalya family massacre, will he be able to maintain popularity among his own party and indeed among the Israeli Jewish society -- the bulk of which is decidedly racist in its perception of Palestinians.

Nonetheless, Olmert realises that the moment his tanks enter Gaza and international TV cameras start relaying mutilated and decapitated Palestinian children, he and Israel will be reciting the Kiddush prayer on Gilad Shalit, the captured soldier. This is why Olmert is walking a tightrope between securing the safe release of Shalit, which can only be achieved through diplomatic means given the current circumstances, or invading Gaza and causing a pornographic bloodshed which might well ignite a real third Intifada.

To be sure, nobody wants a third Intifada, not even the most extremist elements in the Palestinian community.

This is why the Palestinian Prime Minister Ismael Haniya and PA President Mahmoud Abbas are ostensibly striving to solve the problem as soon as possible in coordination with Egyptian troubleshooters dispatched from Cairo for this purpose. Another encouraging sign in this regard is the statement by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice exhorting the Israeli government to employ diplomatic means to solve the current crisis.

However, it remains uncertain if Olmert and his defense minister Amir Peretz, who is eager to prove that he is tough, will settle for the release of the soldier or succumb to the primitive impulses for revenge. That remains to be seen.

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