Mideast's fate entwined with Israeli soldier's


GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- Before he was abducted by Palestinian militants one week ago, Cpl. Gilad Shalit was in his 11th month of service in the Israeli army, fulfilling his compulsory military duty like thousands of other young Israelis.

The shy, quiet 19-year-old with thick-rimmed glasses hails from the small town of Mitzpe Hila in the gentle hills of the western Galilee, where he excelled in physics and sciences at his high school. After graduation, Shalit entered the army and was assigned to a four-man tank crew patrolling Israel's border with Gaza. He was the tank's gunner.

Today the fate of this young solider has become, in many respects, the fate of the Middle East conflict. If he is released through negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, it would be a major breakthrough, perhaps building confidence on both sides to call for a new cease-fire and work toward negotiations on the even more complicated issues of peace, analysts say.

But, they caution, if Shalit is killed, it will likely plunge the region into another destructive cycle of violence, similar to the clashes that occurred in 2002 after the Passover bombing at a Netanya hotel that killed 30 people.

"If the soldier is released, it enables everyone, but the chances of the soldier being released look slimmer and slimmer everyday," said Gershon Baskin, co-director of the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information in Jerusalem.

Israel unleashed a broad air, sea and ground offensive last week against the 1.4 million Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip as part of its effort to free Shalit, knocking out bridges, roads and power stations, and leaving much of the population without electricity and with dwindling supplies of fuel and water. As part of its campaign, Israel arrested a third of the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority's Cabinet and 20 Hamas members of the parliament.

Israel considers Hamas one of the main culprits behind the raid, which captured Shalit and left two other Israeli soldiers dead. But the aggressive, far-reaching military operation of mass arrests, airstrikes and a threatened invasion of northern Gaza did not bring Shalit any closer to freedom, critics say.

"With blind eyes, Israel is galloping towards a new low in its relations with the Palestinians: a point in which there is no connection between the scale of the Israeli military activity against the Palestinians and the hoped-for outcome," wrote Shaul Mishal, a researcher on Hamas in the political science department of Tel Aviv University, in Friday's Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel's largest daily newspaper.

"Israel can extricate itself from this tangled situation, while minimizing its losses, by abandoning the language of force," Mishal added. "This tragic incident should be utilized and leveraged as an opportunity to renew the cease-fire: Israel will refrain from assassinations and the Palestinians will commit themselves to stop the Kassam rocket fire immediately."

But other analysts say the scope of the military operation indicates that Israel has wider goals than rescuing its hostage, including stopping rocket attacks against Israel and weakening the Hamas government.

"I think the soldier is a trigger," said Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University. "The Israelis were fed up with the Kassams" - the homemade rockets fired by militants at Israel - "and waited for the green light from the leadership. The leadership tried restraint, but in light of the kidnapped soldier they could not."

Inbar said Israel finds itself in the same situation it did in 2002, when a string of suicide bombings and other attacks forced Israel to enter Palestinian cities in a search for militants. Although Israel withdrew its settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip less than a year ago, the rocket attacks and the cross-border raids - like the one that led to Shalit's capture - have made it necessary for Israel to return, Inbar said.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has staked his leadership on a plan to withdraw tens of thousands of settlers from the West Bank. But after the raid and kidnapping, critics question whether the pullout from the territories would endanger Israel, bringing militants within closer range of Israel's population centers.

"Basically, Israel will have to live with the Wild West next to it for a long time," Inbar said. "It is an Israeli illusion that you can get out. It may mean leaving a few settlements to lessen the friction, but in the long run it's very difficult for Israel to disentangle itself from the territories."

Raji Sourani, director of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights in Gaza City, agreed that the military operation had less to do with the abducted soldier than Israel's desire to destabilize the Palestinian government at a moment when it was solving its internal differences.

Hamas, officially dedicated to Israel's destruction, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement, which wants negotiations with Israel, have been locked in a power struggle over their competing ideologies. Some feared that the feud would start a civil war. But last week there appeared to be a breakthrough when the two factions signed an agreement based on a document drafted by Palestinian prisoners that calls for the creation of a Palestinian state within pre-1967 borders.

If the document means that Hamas is prepared to recognize Israel, it may allow international aid to flow again to the Palestinians and set the stage for negotiations with Israel.

"When the prisoners' document was signed and sealed, the internal conflict was over," Sourani said. "The road was paved for the road map" - the stalled U.S.-backed peace plan - "but Israel overturned the table and confused everything."

Israeli officials, however, dismissed the agreement as nothing more than an attempt by the fractured Palestinian leadership to display unity during a week of crisis.

The agreement does not explicitly recognize Israel, nor does it renounce violence. It endorses the continuation of resistance in the Palestinian territories, and it leaves open the possibility of other resistance within Israel.

Still, some analysts defended the agreement as a significant step forward that should not be ignored. "In conflicts we've had in the last 50 years, if we've been able to get a movement that is going in the direction of violence and get them into politics, that in itself is a tremendous victory. It's very saddening and frustrating that this chance is not being taken," said Helga Baumgarten, professor of political science at Birzeit University in Ramallah.

"We very much hope in the interest of all concerned that Shalit is alive and that his release will be the stepping-stone to move ahead," she said.

Such an outcome is unlikely, says Sourani, who expects that Israel will continue its military operation in Gaza no matter what happens. "This summer is going to bleak, black and bloody," he said.


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