The weapon of last resort

The massing of heavy weaponry around the Gaza Strip, and the aerial bombardment of vital civilian installations in Rafah such as power plants and bridges in prelude to an all-out invasion, show absolutely clearly that Israeli leaders never learn the lesson of history.

Their predecessors tried similar tactics before: in Lebanon in the 80s, in Jenin in 2002 and in Gaza all the way up to Sharon’s unilateral and unconditional withdrawal from the beleaguered Gaza Strip. What has been the outcome? Resistance against occupation never ceased, the bloodshed on both sides is continuing and the conflict is as bitter as it has always been.

In addition, the current adventure exposes the profoundly racist nature of Israel’s ruling elite. As far as it is concerned, the Palestinians are not entitled to the right of equal human dignity. Indeed, in its lexicon, such a concept does not even seem to exist.

That is why 10,000 Palestinian prisoners of war in Israeli detention camps, including several hundred women and children, are deemed to be of no value whatsoever, whereas a single Israeli prisoner of war deserves a major onslaught on the most defenceless and densely populated strip of land on the face of the earth.

Only 24 hours before Palestinian militants managed to capture the Israeli soldier in an attack on an Israeli post just outside Gaza the Israelis kidnapped two Hamas activists and took them away, allegedly because they had been contemplating an attack on Israel.

It is highly unlikely that Israel will be able to save its soldier through military action. This was tried before, and failed miserably. In October 1994, Hamas’s al-Qassam Brigades captured Nachshon Vaxman, an Israeli soldier in the Golani Infantry Brigade. The captors barricaded themselves and their hostage in a house located in the village of Bir Nabala, near the West Bank city of Ramallah, and demanded the release of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the safe return of the soldier.

Working on intelligence communicated to them by the Palestinian Authority about the location of the hideout, and while pretending they were preparing to meet the demands of the captors, the Israelis started planning a rescue operation. An Israeli defence force (IDF) special forces unit raided the hideout but failed miserably: the hostage, his captors and the Israeli unit’s commander were killed in the process.

It will do neither Israel nor its captured soldier much good to inflict collective punishment on the inhabitants of Gaza or to go rounding up Hamas officials, including MPs and government ministers, in various West Bank towns. Israel’s best option would be to negotiate the terms for the safe return of Gilad Shalit.

The demands of the captors are legitimate. This soldier is a prisoner of war, and so are the 10,000 Palestinians held captive by Israel. An exchange seems fair and sensible. The captors are only asking for the women and the children, whom Israel has no right to keep in its custody anyway. Had Israel truly sought an end to its occupation of the Gaza Strip, it should have given its people back their sons and daughters when it withdrew its troops from there.

In fact, part of the failure of Israel’s unilateralism is that it keeps major issues unresolved. The most crucial of all issues to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank is that of the Palestinian prisoners – hence the solid support the Palestinian public is showing for the tactic of capturing Israeli soldiers in order to exchange them for Palestinian prisoners.

Had Israel taken the initiative as part of its unilateral withdrawal from Gaza to release the Palestinian prisoners, much of the tension would have been defused. Hours after it transpired that the Israeli missing soldier had been captured, families of Palestinian prisoners gathered in Gaza to demand that the soldier be kept alive and treated well in the hope that he would be exchanged for their loved ones.

Undoubtedly, the Israeli adventure into Gaza will cost many Palestinian lives and will cause enormous suffering. But it will cost Israeli lives, too, and will add fuel to the fire of the conflict between the two sides. Many Palestinians feel that whatever suffering the Israeli onslaught may bring, it will not make things much worse than they already are.

Since Israel withdrew unilaterally from the strip, life has not been easy; there has been an almost daily Israeli shelling of several border areas, and the entire population has been at the receiving end of sanctions imposed on the Palestinians as a punishment meted out to them for electing Hamas.

Furthermore, the Israeli claim that the capture of the IDF soldier was ordered by Hamas’s leader, Khalid Mish’al, who should therefore expect to be assassinated, is not only unfounded but also very dangerous. Israelis ought to know that blaming Syria or Hamas leaders in Damascus for the crisis will only augment it and may lead to an escalation at the level of the entire region.

The fact is that the Palestinian people inside Gaza Strip and the West Bank have tried all means available to them to secure the release of their sons and daughters in Israeli detention and have been left with no option but to capture Israeli soldiers to exchange them. To blame Syria, or the Hamas leaders who live there, is to insist on evading the real issue: as long as there are Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails the problem will persist.

None of this might have happened had the US and the European Union seized the opportunity created by Hamas’s success in the elections last January. Hamas would have extended its unilateral truce into a long-term ceasefire agreement, had the world community recognised it as a legitimate representative of the Palestinians and sought to persuade the Israelis that dealing with Hamas was their best option.

It is not too late for the world community to make a move. Israel should be stopped from pursuing its military adventure and encouraged to engage immediately in negotiations to guarantee the safe return of its soldier in exchange for the freedom of Palestinian women and children. The next step would be to get the Israelis to negotiate a long-term truce with the elected government of the people of Palestine.

The British government, in particular, can play a leading role in mediating an end to the current crisis, as it did in the early months of the second intifada. Britain, which has led the drive within Europe to proscribe Hamas and spearhead the sanctions against the Palestinians, should now lead the effort to mediate a peaceful settlement based on a long-term truce between the two sides.

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