Gazans are being warned by telephone to vacate their homes or be bombed, unsure if the calls are genuine or just cruel, sadistic punishment, writes Khalid Amayreh in the West Bank
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A Palestinian youth all in blood reacts as a body is wheeled into Al-Shifa Hospital after an Israeli raid on Gaza earlier this week
With the gruesome killing of Palestinian civilians, including children, continuing unabated and assuming a daily frequency, Israel has hardened its stand with regard to a possible prisoner swap involving the release of a captured Israeli soldier held in Gaza by Palestinian resistance fighters.
According to confidential Palestinian sources, Israel has reneged on promises made earlier to Egypt whereby the Israeli government undertook to release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners and hostages, including dozens of lawmakers and cabinet ministers, in return for the release of the captured soldier.
The sources said Israel was refusing to make a "direct linkage" between the release of Gilad Shalit, the captured soldier, on the one hand, and the release of Palestinian prisoners and hostages.
"They want the release of the soldier to be certain, definite and even unconditional. On the other hand they insist that the release of Palestinian prisoners look uncertain, indefinite and even noncommittal," intimated a Palestinian government spokesman. "Obviously, we can't accept this, and even the Egyptians won't accept it," he added.
In mid-July, Israel reportedly gave Egyptian mediators "assurances" that Israel would release hundreds of Palestinian children, women, veteran political prisoners who have spent more than 18 years in detention, and politicians abducted recently following the capture by Palestinian fighters of the Israeli soldier near Rafah 25 June.
Egypt had presented the reported assurances to Palestinian leaders, including Prime Minister Ismail Haniya, who acquiesced to the deal, prompting PA President Mahmoud Abbas to declare that the release of Shalit was imminent.
It is not clear what made Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert suddenly change his mind. Israeli press sources suggested that Olmert didn't want Israel to appear "at this time" being forced to release Palestinian prisoners and that the "abduction" of soldiers was paying off for Palestinians.
Israel, after all, is waging war and committing massacres in Lebanon and Gaza to achieve the declared goal of forcing the unconditional release of Israeli soldiers captured by both Hamas and Hizbullah. Hence, promising to release -- let alone releasing -- Palestinian prisoners, the Israeli government calculates, would send the wrong message to all concerned, whether Israelis, Palestinians or Arabs.
A second possible reason for Israel's change of mood is an apparent desire to wait until the current campaign in Lebanon is over before tackling the issue of Shalit's return. Israel seems hopeful that victory over Hizbullah -- whatever that means from the Israeli perspective -- would enable Israel to dictate the release of Shalit without being obliged to release Palestinian prisoners.
This scenario presumes that Israel would be able to gain the release of the two Israeli soldiers in Hizbullah hands without having to release Lebanese prisoners in Israeli custody. Needless to say, this is a remote prospect given Hizbullah's exemplary determination to carry out a prisoner swap no matter how many Lebanese civilians are slaughtered by the Israeli army and irrespective of the wanton destruction being wreaked by the Israeli air force on Lebanon's civilian infrastructure.
Another lesser-understood reason for Israeli reluctance to strike a prisoner swap with the Palestinians at this time is to gain more time to exhaust intelligence efforts to locate the whereabouts of the captured soldier. According to Palestinian sources in the Gaza Strip, Israel has been making intensive efforts at the intelligence level to uncover any clue that might help Israel locate where the soldier is being held.
These efforts repeatedly include a "maximal activation" of Israel's vast net of informers, as well as offering attractive monetary awards for information leading up to the release of Shalit.
Israel's obvious failure to locate Shalit has led to speculation that he may have been smuggled out of Gaza. Such rumours have been discounted by Hamas political leader Khaled Meshal who pointed out in an interview with Al-Ahram Saturday that "Gaza is under total siege and that the soldier was being held in Gaza."
Meshal added that there was no way the Palestinians would agree to release the imprisoned solider without a reciprocal release by Israel of Palestinian prisoners and hostages held in Israeli jails. "The cause of our prisoners held in Zionist jails touches every member and every family of the Palestinian people. This is not a matter of Hamas or Fatah. We are all responsible for the release of these prisoners who have sacrificed their life and their youth on behalf of our nation."
In a separate interview, Meshal asserted the "unity of fate" of Palestine and Lebanon, dismissing voices -- including that of President Abbas -- cautioning against lumping the Palestinian and Lebanese struggles into one package.
"Whether in Lebanon or in Palestine, resistance is the answer," said Meshal. "Is there anything other than the resistance that could defend our children, women, and holy shrines at this point of time, as Israel and America commit more and more crimes without any accountability?" asked Meshal following the Qana massacre in southern Lebanon where Israel killed more than 60 civilians, including as many as 37 children, in an after-midnight aerial bombing of the village.
Meanwhile, the Israeli army continues to indiscriminately bombard Palestinian civilian neighbourhoods all over the Gaza Strip, killing and maiming scores of civilians. According to Palestinian Health Ministry officials, the number of Palestinians killed by Israeli bombing since 27 June has reached 187, including over 40 children.
In its blitz on unprotected Gazans, Israel has introduced a new tactic which takes the form of a telephone call to Gazan families from the Israeli Shin Bet (domestic intelligence agency) warning that them that they must leave their homes or be bombed within 20 minutes. Predictably, the manifestly sadistic tactic has terrorised the entire population, many left wondering if a given call is genuine or a hoax.
Some families, convinced by such calls, have left their homes at two o'clock in the morning only to see them bombed directly by Israeli F-16 fighters. Others have abandoned their homes and seen them stand untouched. So fearful are they that they refuse to return in case bombings are merely delayed.
Whether all calls are genuine is uncertain. What is certain is that all families receiving such calls -- and they are in the thousands -- are living in constant terror at the hands of a people who claim to be a light upon mankind, and under a state that claims to be the only democracy in the Middle East.