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Israel's Gaza push no longer just about a soldier

As tensions mount between Israel and the Palestinians over the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier, the dispute has spread to wider issues — in particular, the future of the Hamas-led Palestinian administration. NBC News’ Martin Fletcher reports from Gaza City.
/ Source: NBC News

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — As tensions mount between Israel and the Palestinians over the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier, the dispute has spread to wider issues — in particular, the future of the Hamas-led Palestinian administration. NBC News’ Martin Fletcher reports from Gaza City on the Israelis' arrest of several high-ranking Hamas officials and the possibility of all out war in the region.

With the latest arrests of members of the Hamas government, is Israel trying to make the issue of the kidnapped soldier a launching pad to unseat the entire Hamas administration?
Yes, we were told by top Israeli political sources that this whole thing now is not just aimed only at rescuing the Israeli soldier, but that it’s also meant to eventually destroy the Hamas government. So that’s pretty significant.

It’s clear that by arresting these Palestinian officials — eight cabinet members and 20 parliament members — the Israelis are taking a bold move.

And they would have arrested more-senior Hamas officials except they can’t get to the Hamas party members who live in Gaza — so that’s why they arrested those individuals who live in the West Bank. The Hamas deputy prime minister who does live in the West Bank is now in hiding. And the Hamas leaders in Gaza, including the prime minister, have apparently switched off their cell phones and they are also staying out of the way.

So the Hamas politicians are feeling very threatened by the Israelis — not only in terms of arrests in the West Bank, but assassinations in Gaza.

What is the international legality of those arrests? Does Israel have the right to go in and arrest Palestinian leaders?
On one hand it seems strange that they would have the right to go in and arrest elected members of parliament of another country. On the other hand, Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States and the European Union.

So, you have this dilemma in which an organization which is called a terrorist organization has been democratically elected to lead the Palestinian people.

From Israel’s point of view, the Hamas government is supporting a Hamas military organization that is committing terrorism against the Israeli government.

So, from the Israeli point of view, the arrests of the Hamas leaders are legitimate. And from the international legal point of view, they are considered a terrorist organization.

On the other hand, they are the democratically elected leaders of the Palestinian people.

From the Palestinian point of view, they don’t consider themselves terrorists in the slightest. They consider the Hamas military wing to be legitimate resistance against the Israeli occupation. 

But, at the same time, the Palestinian leadership of Hamas is always they are careful to deny that they have any connection whatsoever with the military leadership of Hamas. They say that they are two separate, completely distinct organizations.

Therefore, according to Hamas, it is quite possible to have what they call legitimate resistance by their militants and at the same time, to have the political side of Hamas lead the Palestinian government.

So that’s the dilemma. Now Israel, and the world, must face that dilemma. How do you deal with a terrorist organization, according to one side, which is elected to run a country?

On Wednesday there were reports that Israeli war planes flew over Syrian president Bashar Assad’s home. Is this dispute now threatening to spread to a regional conflict?
Two years ago, Israel sent planes to cause sonic booms over the Syrian leader’s palace. So it’s happened before, and nothing much developed from it.

The militant leader of Hamas, Khaled Mashaal, who Israel says ordered the kidnapping of the Israeli soldier, lives in Damascus and he is sheltered by the Syrians. Israel sent the planes as a warning to the Syrians that they should stop supporting this Palestinian militant leader.

But, again, the question becomes : OK, well does Syria respond? Last time, two years ago, the Syrians didn’t really respond. This time, there hasn’t been a response, yet.

But,Israel has declared an alert on their northern border with Lebanon and Syria in case there is some kind of response — maybe not directly from Syria, but perhaps through one of their proxies in Lebanon, such as Hezbollah.

On Wednesday, Israeli forces destroyed a series of electricity generators, saying that would help prevent Hamas from moving around the abducted soldier. How has this affected ordinary Palestinians in Gaza?  
Gaza has one power plant and that was destroyed yesterday by Israeli war planes. Now, about 65 percent of the Gaza Strip no longer has electricity — that’s about one million people without electricity.

There is an estimate that it will take up to a year to rebuild that power plant. So that means Palestinians will have limited electricity — and some will have no electricity for as long as a year — until they get a chance to rebuild it.

In another strike, they destroyed three bridges which connected the northern Gaza to the south — so transport has become very problematic for Palestinians.

And the third thing that’s been happening overnight and during the day is that Israeli war planes have been flying low over Gaza causing sonic booms in order to stop Palestinians from sleeping — another form of psychological warfare. All of these things are effecting the civilian population directly.

And Israel’s hope, as we understand it, is that the civilian population will get so fed-up with this anarchic situation that has been caused by the election of Hamas as their leaders that they will try to overthrow Hamas. That’s the Israeli hope.  

How are regular Palestinians in the street in Gaza reacting? Are they still in support of Hamas?
Yes, I think that probably if anything, they probably support them more. That’s the mindset here. The people in Gaza have been suffering for so long and they’ve had such an appalling existence for so long, that if it’s a bit worse now, they are nowhere near the last straw.

Everyone here keeps saying that Hamas won the last election fair and square — democratically. Now the world may be against us, but to hell with the rest of the world.

The attitude seems to be, if there is another election today, we’ll elect them again. It’s a very stubborn reaction from the Palestinian people who don’t feel that they did anything wrong. They had elections, the elections were created with the blessing of the U.S., and they had a result which was Hamas.

The people here have a very strong feeling along the lines of, Who is the world to tell us that we elected the wrong people?

The Palestinians were working out an internal deal between Hamas and Fatah regarding the recognition of the state of Israel. Is that deal now moot at this point?
I think that it is fairly moot, although at one point it looked as if it was going to be an important document.

The Palestinian prisoners in the Israeli jails, who have become the sort of vanguard of Palestinian ideology almost — they are people that everyone pays respect to — they came out with this document which called for the recognition of Israel within 1967 borders and the acceptance of all the past agreements that have been made between the Israelis and Palestinians.

The Palestinian president, Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas), thought that he could use that as a basic document, get Hamas to sign it, and then with that he could show the world that, see, Hamas does recognize Israel and then ask that the sanctions be lifted.

But, that was very iffy anyway because Israel rejected the idea from the start. And of course, nobody really believed that suddenly Hamas would turn and recognize Israel.

Now that they finally came to a kind of agreement on that document, but not a full agreement, I think it’s pretty much gotten lost in the shouting. So it has almost no impact.

With all of this going on right now, it seems like quite an escalation of where things were just a few days ago where there was a lot of tension, but not this kind of military action, what is the specter of all out war at this point? Does it look like this is going to continue or will someone back down?
It looks like no one is going to back down — neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians.

But at the same time, this has been a very, very carefully calibrated operation by Israel. 

Don’t forget, this has been going on for a couple of days now, and with all of the tremendous headlines of shelling and shooting, so far, not one person has been killed or wounded. That’s very significant.

Israel is trying to avoid a direct person-to-person confrontation with the Palestinian militants. So what you have is an Israeli build-up of tanks and artillery shooting, and the Palestinians withdrawing from the areas where the Israelis are facing. The Palestinians are pulled back inside to the narrow alleys in the refugee camps and the towns and that’s where they want to confront the Israelis. But, it looks as if the Israelis are not going to go there.

So, you have this standoff in which the Israelis are shelling and saying what they are going do, and the Palestinians are saying that they are going to resist, but meanwhile, they’re not actually face-to-face anywhere. 

Although it all looks very, very dramatic, it appears that for the moment the Israelis are trying to avoid any real fighting. And the Palestinians are also avoiding it because otherwise, they’ll get completely wiped out.

This is very much a long-term thing now. It’s no longer just a matter of getting that soldier anymore. It’s about setting new red lines between Israel and Hamas.