Palestinians and Israel declare the battle is on
By Joharah Baker for MIFTAH
June 28, 2006

Just when we thought the situation could not possibly get more complicated, this is exactly what has happened. On June 25, in a highly sophisticated military operation, Palestinian activists from three armed groups, including Hamas’ Izzedin Al Qassam Brigades and the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC) , smuggled themselves across the border through an underground tunnel and stormed an Israeli military post just outside the Gaza Strip, killing two soldiers and kidnapping a third.

It has been a flurry of threats, counter-threats, diplomacy and mediation ever since. Not only was the operation itself a blow to Israel’s military ego, but the fact that one of its soldiers is now in “enemy hands” constitutes a setback for the Jewish state almost equivalent in severity to the death of the other two. One Israeli news broadcaster even went as far as saying that the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers was like “experiencing a death over and over again.”

The initial positions of both the Palestinians and Israel were more or less what everyone expected. Israel has so far shown no signs of negotiating, demanding the captors release the hostage or face dire consequences. The groups holding the soldier captive have something else in mind. The hostage will only be released, they announced, in a kind of swap – the Israeli soldier, Corporal Gilad Shalit, for Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli jails, namely women and minors.

Israel, unsurprisingly, will have nothing of the sort and plans to send the Palestinians a clear and stinging message. This morning, Israel began a ground offensive into the southern Gaza Strip, taking up positions in open areas east of Rafah and at the defunct Gaza International Airport. In the early dawn hours, Israel also launched several air strikes against Gaza’s infrastructure, including three bridges and electricity networks.

In return, the PRC and the Izzedin Qassam Brigades have spit back fiery warnings, saying if Israel did not call off its offensive immediately in the Strip, they would order the killing of an 18-year-old Israeli settler missing and said to have been kidnapped by the PRC near Ramallah on Sunday. The resistance has also massed up its own forces throughout Gaza, squaring its shoulders for the fight and announcing they were ready for any Israeli intrusion.

One thing is for certain. The outcome of any military intervention will not be pretty. Even without the latest operation and kidnapping, over the past month the Gaza Strip has been the venue for numerous Israeli air attacks resulting in the deaths of scores of Palestinians, mostly innocent civilians. Skeletons of charred cars, wisps of smoke still rising from them, following Israeli missile strikes moments earlier have flashed across television screens far too many times. Stoic young men brought bloodied into the emergency room bite down to stifle any sign of pain while young children howl in agony and horror as shrapnel is extracted from their small bodies.

So, just imagine what kind of free hand Israel will allow itself this time, knowing it has its own public opinion and much of the world’s empathy on its side?

It is touch and go from here on. In a place of ever-changing variables and unexpected turns of events, anything is possible. Egypt has stepped in to mediate for the peaceful settlement of the crisis but has so far failed and President Abbas has been in contact with the Hamas-led government around the clock to push for the soldier’s release. According to media reports, the president has warned Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh that should the soldier remain captive or harmed, Israel will not hesitate to target him personally.

Let’s be honest. Abbas is not totally off the marker. Israel has already declared that if it does push ahead with its Gaza offensive “no one is immune” including government figures and even Hamas leaders abroad, or at least one specific exiled Hamas leader - Khaled Masha’al, who Israel is already trying to pin the kidnapping on, claiming Masha’al is not only one of the key masterminds of the attack but also a major influence in rejecting any proposals for the kidnapped soldier’s release.

This could actually be the opportunity of a lifetime for Israel. It could go into Gaza under the premise of “saving its soldier” and at the same time severely damage the infrastructure of resistance groups and take out a few Hamas government officials while they’re at it. Perfect.

It has now become apparent that the prisoner exchange is no longer even on the table. Israel’s new offer is that if the soldier is safely returned, the political and military establishment will reconsider the offensive.

Should a major military ground offensive be launched, which seems to be an increasing possibility, the consequences will be nothing short of disastrous, perhaps for both sides. However, it is the underlying message being sent to the Palestinian government and people that should be given equal precedence, which is that regardless of withdrawals, agreements or disengagement plans, Israel will continue to be the superior player in this conflict.

Israel has proven, with both its air raids and now ground offensive, that despite its so-called “disengagement” from the Gaza Strip last summer, it has granted itself the right to bomb, shell, close off or reenter the Strip whenever it deems necessary.

This can only point to the already obvious fact that without a comprehensive and final solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in which Israel no longer controls any aspect of the Palestinians’ affairs, situations like the one we find ourselves in today will only recur over and over again. As long as the Palestinians are under Israeli occupation and are forced into subservience politically, economically and diplomatically, it is only natural that they will find ways to assert their national aspirations and fight back.

It is time for Israel and the international community to realize that if the Palestinians were allowed their own sovereign and viable state without being shackled by economic dependency and political oppression, this cycle of Israeli-perpetrated violence and Palestinian counter-violence could finally be broken.

Joharah Baker is a Writer for the Media and Information Programme at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She could be contacted at