[[Jerusalem Times: Opinion]]
July 2, 2006
This week in Israel….. Behind the news with Gershon Baskin
Kidnapped and trapped
This is the beginning of the second week of the hostage crisis in Gaza. At this moment, Israeli troops of stationed in northern and southern Gaza waiting for the for the green light to launch the ground operation that was postponed on Friday by Prime Minister Olmert. According to reports, Olmert postponed the attack in order to give Egyptian diplomatic efforts a last chance of freeing the kidnapped soldier. In statements released by the Prime Minister’s office, it was reported that Olmert was not satisfied with the plans for the ground operation. The IDF wasn’t too happy about the public criticism but they understood the real reason behind the delay. The aim of the mission is officially to bring about the release of Corporal Gilead Shilat being held by a coalition of Palestinian forces led by Hamas that attacked the Kerem Shalom base last week. The unofficial aim of the missions is to bring down the Hamas government.
If the IDF knew the exact location of where Shilat was being held, a military operation would be launched to try to rescue him. The discipline of Shilat’s captors is apparently much better than at any other similar time before and apparently, at least until now, the IDF has not been able to discover the hideaway. Usually in the past, the IDF could rely on mistakes by the kidnappers or by squealers from amongst the Palestinian population. Over 80% of the Palestinian public has supported the kidnapping of the Israeli soldier with the hopes that it would lead to a prisoner release. Israel is holding close to 10,000 Palestinians in Israeli prisons. Added to that number this week was more than 80 Hamas activists and leaders. Some one-third of the Palestinian Parliament members are now under lock and key including about half of the Hamas Ministers from the West Bank. Israel has begun targeting the Hamas Ministers in Gaza as well, and they have apparently taken to the underground. Israeli rockets hit the office of Prime Minister Haniyeh last night with reports that the entire building has been burnt to the ground. Rockets also hit the office of Palestinian Minister of Interior Said Siam causing significant damage there as well. So far, since the kidnapping, more than 40 attacks have been undertaken by the Israeli air force in Gaza, in addition to more than 500 rounds of artillery fire over the weekend alone.
The first Israeli strike in Gaza hit an electricity plant causing about one million people to be in total darkness. It has been reported that the plant was insured by US Government foreign risk insurance and will now cost the US government about $25 million to repair. Bridges and roads in the south of Gaza were also hit in order to prevent the possible movement of kidnappers and Corporal Shilat out of Gaza- at least that was the reason given by the army. The US has appealed to Israel not to damage infrastructure in Gaza, but Jerusalem doesn’t seem to be listening.
Israel is trapped, as is the Hamas and Fateh leaderships, by this kidnapping. Israel believed that by leaving 100% of Gaza it would be able to buy quiet, at least on the Gaza front. The continuation of Qassam rockets – more than 1100 have hit Sderot in the last years with most of them falling there since the exodus of Gaza, and now the attack against the Kerem Shalom base have created a real dilemma for Israel. Most Israelis don’t understand why we are under attack after completely leaving Gaza up to the international border.
Israel is quite limited in what it can do to prevent the attacks. There seems to be no real military options for crushing the Qassam attacks. Yet, Israel knows that no government in the world can tolerate having its citizens hit with rockets from a neighboring country. Israel also cannot accept having its sovereign territory violated in military-guerilla raids – even if this is officially not terrorism, as the raid was against soldiers and not civilians. This situation, from Israel’s point of view, is simply intolerable. Most Palestinians do not seem to realize the seriousness of the Qassam attacks from Israel’s point of view. Palestinians discount the Qassams as not being an effective weapon and most of them fall in open space or even within Gaza itself. It would be wise for the Palestinians to be more serious in understanding that the Government of Israel cannot allow this situation to continue and is now ready to take drastic military actions to stop them.
An impossible situation
In the situation of a soldier being held hostage, Israel finds itself having to face dilemmas that are almost impossible to resolve in a positive way. Negotiating for the release of the kidnapped soldier is almost a guaranteed recipe for additional kidnappings on a weekly basis. But without keeping the negotiating option open, there is almost no chance of having the soldier returned to his family alive.
Egyptian President Mubarak has been most helpful in sending his highest ranking Minister, General Omar Suleiman, to try and bring about the release of the soldier. The Egyptians have apparently presented a deal in which the solder would be released in exchange for an Egyptian Presidential guarantee that there would be a Palestinian prisoner release in the future. The date of that release is not specified nor the amount of Palestinian prisoners to be released. Israel is unlikely to agree to that deal, but for the moment, the ball is in the court of the Palestinians who have been demanded to respond by the end of today.
Palestinian President Abbas and Prime Minister Haniyeh have both called for the release of Shilat but they seem to lack any real control over the kidnappers. Haniyeh has gained considerable support on the Palestinian street in the last week, mainly for signing the Prisoners’ document – which has been almost forgotten by now, but his weakness is now also quite clear to the public by his lack of influence over the Hamas military wing and even the politburo headed by Khaled Mashaal in Damascus. Khaled Mashaal is being credited by Israel for being the master mind behind the Kerem Shalom attack and the kidnapping of the soldier. Israel is probably giving Mashaal far too much credit. It is much more likely that the operation was conceived and implemented by the military wing of Hamas in Gaza with the collaboration of other organizations and not on orders from Damascus. But it is convenient for Israel to have an external enemy and a target to vent all of our frustration and anger.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Mark Regev claimed, on BBC World Service that Hamas is one organization and that there is no separate military wing and political wing. The situation in Gaza has shown how untrue that statement is. The Foreign Ministry needs to coordinate it messages better with the IDF, because the IDF statements, and even statements from the Prime Minister’s office speak about separate military and political wings of Hamas.
Ronnie Baron, the Minister of Interior, handed eviction orders from Jerusalem to the four Hamas parliamentarians from Jerusalem who are not sitting in the Ofer prison, just outside of Ramallah. Last month, the Government of Israel decided that the elected Hamas officials from Jerusalem would lose their Jerusalem residency rights if they did not resign from Hamas and the Parliament. They were given the chance of a hearing in the Ministry of Interior, but they never exploited that opportunity. Now, under arrest, they were given the orders that they are losing their rights to reside in Jerusalem. For the time being they are “guests” of the Israeli government in prison. When they will be released, they will, no doubt, pursue legal action in the Israeli Supreme Court to have the order removed. Israel has stated that Hamas is a terrorist organization and the leaders of the movement are terrorist leaders and therefore, they will not have the right to be residents of the city of Jerusalem. Palestinians Jerusalemites were granted residency status in June 1967 when Israel annexed East Jerusalem. The Palestinians there did no become citizens of Israel, although in those days they were offered the possibility of getting Israeli citizenship. They were turned into residents of Jerusalem granting them almost all the rights of citizens except the right to vote in the Knesset. Today, the most important aspect of Jerusalem residency rights is the right to move freely throughout Israel and to use Ben Gurion airport.
In the past weeks, Palestinian Jerusalemites have lost the right to travel to Ramallah and Bethlehem- which for them are parts of their immediate territory. Israel has closed Areas “a” to the Jerusalemites and now they require special permits issued by the Central Command in order to legally enter those areas. Palestinian Jerusalemites are being given the message that their status and their freedom of movement are very conditional and very “iffy”. The denial of residency to the Hamas elected officials who were elected in democratic elections that took place in Israel under Israel’s tacit agreement, sends a message to the public that if they act in ways that displease Israel, they too could lose their rights. This is certainly no recipe for calm in Jerusalem.
Releasing some pressure
The Government did decide this morning to open the Karni crossing for the next four days and to allow 150 trucks a day to pass into Gaza carrying basic goods and medical supplies. The fuel passage will also be opened allowing benzene and diesel to enter Gaza over the next days. Without a fully functional electrical system in Gaza, there is much great reliance on generators that need fuel. Bakeries are also reporting that they have enough flour but the lack energy for running the ovens. This is a positive step by the Government and a clear victory for Amir Peretz.
The approval rating of the public for Olmert and Peretz has dropped to record lows. Olmert stands in the mid 30’s and Peretz is around 25% according to weekend polls. In these difficult situations the public usually wants to see more Israeli strength and military might. Effie Eitam, the right wing religious militant has called on the Government to implement a plan of wholesale executions of Hamas leaders. Netanyahu and his crony Yuval Shteinitz have been calling for a massive ground operation. Sderot Mayor Eli Moyal has been calling on the army to wipe out Beit Hanoun and Beit Lahia. The IDF did warn residents of Beit Hanoun and Beit Lahia that they should leave their homes before the Israeli incursion begins. There are tens of thousands of people there who have no where to go and most of them will not leave, if there is in fact a ground operation. I wonder why no one is talking about a bilateral ceasefire that would include the release of the kidnapped soldier and a prisoner release that would be gradual and measured based on the success of the ceasefire.
We must create conditions for de-escalating the situation. An interesting anecdote is that there is no word in Hebrew for de-escalation.
Gershon Baskin is the Co-CEO of IPCRI – the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information. www.ipcri.org