TEL AVIV (Jun. 25)
Days away from the first summit between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, a deadly clash on the Gaza Strip border has raised the specter of major escalation.
In their first successful raid out of Gaza since Israel quit the coastal strip last year, Palestinians on Sunday tunneled under the border fence and stormed an Israeli military position near Kibbutz Kerem Shalom.
Two soldiers, Lt. Hanan Barak, 21, from Arad, and St. Sgt. Pavel Slutsker, 20, from Dimona, were killed and a third was taken captive. The soldiers returned fire, killing two attackers.
The rest retreated to Gaza, taking with them Cpl. Gilad Shalit, 19.
Armed groups historically have used captured Israeli soldiers as bargaining chips for the release of Palestinian prisoners. However, Olmert ruled out negotiations over Shalit’s release.
Scrambling to retrieve Shalit and head off a hostage crisis, Israel sent a small armored force into P.A.-controlled territory in pursuit, but it was unsuccessful. Shalit, from Mitzpeh Hila in the Galilee, was wounded at the time of his capture and is said to be in stable condition. Palestinian sources said Shalit had stomach and chest wounds.
“This situation is extremely grave,” said Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, Israel’s military chief.
The predawn raid was carried out jointly by the Popular Resistance Committees terrorist coalition, Islamic Jihad and Hamas. The groups called it revenge for the death of Palestinian civilians in recent Israeli airstrikes against Gazan rocket crews.
The involvement of Hamas, the terrorist group that runs the P.A. government, prompted senior Israeli officials to redouble their threats against the group.
According to senior political sources, at least two members of Olmert’s Cabinet demanded that Israeli forces reoccupy parts of Gaza. Olmert is not expected to approve such a sweeping move so early in his term, especially as he is busy trying to lobby support for Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank.
But in comments to fellow ministers, Olmert made clear that the chances were slim for a rapprochement with Abbas, who is seen internationally as a relatively moderate alternative to the Hamas government.
“The State of Israel sees the Palestinian Authority, headed by Chairman Abu Mazen and the Palestinian government, responsible for the incident, with everything that implies,” Olmert said, using Abbas’ nom de guerre.
After their informal meeting in Jordan last week, Olmert and Abbas were expected to reconvene by month’s end or early July for a first peace summit; the attack put that on hold. Israeli sources said Olmert aides indefinitely deferred a meeting with their Palestinian counterparts that had been intended to lay the groundwork for talks.
Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, a former defense minister, hinted that Israel could step up its military actions in Gaza to include even airstrikes against senior Hamas politicians.
“When it comes to terrorism, there is no difference between a prime minister and a suicide bomber,” he told Israel Radio. Senior Hamas officials went underground after the attack, fearing Israeli retaliation.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni spoke with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, asking them to press Abbas to secure Shalit’s release. She also relayed the message that Israel considers the abduction a test of Abbas’ leadership. Abbas, however, said Hamas is solely responsible for the affair.