Gaza’s transformation into a battlefield is a tale of lost opportunity and ill-fated visions.
The capture of a young Israeli soldier and Israel’s tough response have threatened Israeli support for withdrawal from the West Bank, exposed rifts among the Islamic militants of Hamas and rendered the Palestinians’ moderate president irrelevant.
Expectations that Palestinians would begin building their own state following Israel’s historic withdrawal from the impoverished Gaza Strip last year have given way to despair and escalating bloodshed.
Israeli troops who had been clashing periodically with militants are back in Gaza fighting pitched battles with masked gunmen firing AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades. Undersupplied Palestinian hospitals cancel non-emergency treatment to tend to the wounded. Families are fleeing their homes.
Israel blames what it calls the unfathomable decision by Gaza militants to continue firing rockets into Israel even after the Israeli pullout — rather than begin building their nation.
“You don’t need to be our friends if you don’t want to, but you have your opportunity. Be quiet, invest in your own, promote your own well being,” said Brig. Gen. Ido Nehushtan, a member of the Israeli army’s General Staff.
Losing faith in West Bank withdrawal
More and more Israelis see the aftermath of the Gaza withdrawal — the political rise of Hamas, the rocket attacks, a growing Syrian, Iranian and al-Qaida influence in Gaza — as proof that a similar withdrawal from the West Bank is not feasible.
Palestinian militants say Israel can’t subjugate Gaza for four decades, withdraw and then expect everything to suddenly be normal. They say attacks on the Jewish state are justified because Israelis occupy the West Bank and still control Gaza’s air, sea and borders.
Some Palestinians argue that Israel’s decision to quit Gaza without negotiations undermined moderates and bolstered radicals.
“They made the peace camp in Palestine just irrelevant ... and they gave Hamas the opportunity to claim that the evacuation of Israelis from Gaza is an outcome of their resistance,” said Ghassan Khatib, the Palestinians’ former planning minister.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ failure stop militant attacks or win the release of 19-year-old Israeli Cpl. Gilad Shalit has underscored his growing marginalization and lack of power.
Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, considered a relative pragmatist, on Saturday called for a truce with Israel, but did not offer to release the Israeli soldier. Israel quickly rejected the proposal, saying it would not end its offensive unless he were freed.
Shalit was seized June 25 in a cross-border raid by Hamas-linked militants, who have demanded the release of some of the 9,000 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.
Mixed signals from Israel
That demand has widespread support among ordinary Palestinians, which cuts to the heart of the stalemate. Hamas could be finished politically if it gives up Shalit without a prisoner swap, and Israel fears that caving into militant demands would only encourage more attacks.
“We can’t give in to such blackmail because if we do they’ll kidnap soldiers and civilians again and again to use them again and again for negotiations,” said Israeli Cabinet Minister Meir Sheetrit.
Yet Israel has sent mixed signals regarding a prisoner swap, with one senior minister hinting it might be possible.
But even if Israel agreed to a trade, disarray inside Hamas might preclude a deal. It is no longer the disciplined, monolithic movement it once was.
Senior Abbas aides say they believe Hamas’ Syria-based political leader, Khaled Mashaal, approved the attack that grabbed Shalit without consulting the Hamas-led Palestinian government in Gaza, although Hamas spokesmen insist that isn’t so.
The renewed battle has been a blow to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s plan to withdraw from much of the West Bank and set formal borders, with or without an accord with the Palestinians, as Israel did in Gaza.
But Sheetrit said the lack of a Palestinian negotiating partner should preclude another pullback, popularly known as “disengagement.”
“I don’t think we should leave the West Bank. I’m against it. In my opinion there will be no more unilateral disengagements,” he told The Associate Press.
Those words hold great irony because Sheetrit is a senior member of Olmert’s 8-month-old Kadima Party, whose main reason for existence is to partition historic Palestine between Arab and Jew in order to ensure a long-term Jewish majority for Israel.
Still, a resolution of the Gaza crisis could rescue the concept of a West Bank withdrawal.
A largely overlooked but potentially significant development occurred in Gaza two days after Shalit’s capture when negotiators from Hamas and Abbas’ Fatah Party agreed on a joint platform that calls for the creation of Palestinian state alongside Israel.
Hamas has long refused to accept the legitimacy of the Jewish state, but the agreement was spurred by an increasingly bloody rivalry between Hamas and Fatah in Gaza that threatened to escalate into civil war.
And the current crisis has united Palestinians in a common rallying cry: No freedom for Shalit without a prisoner swap.
If the Shalit crisis is solved, either through a deal or military means, the recent moves toward Palestinian unity might bode well for a new approach on Israel that could end a crippling international aid boycott over Hamas’ militancy and boost prospects for resumed peace talks.
Aluf Benn, the political correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, said Israel doesn’t need a friendly force on its border to leave the West Bank, only a coherent one that can maintain “some sort of security balance.” Hamas hasn’t fit that bill, he said.
“The prerequisite is not their stated positions or what they say about peace, but how they care for security,” he said.