TEL AVIV (Jun. 28)
Israeli tanks and troops are back in Gaza, less than a year after a landmark withdrawal from the coastal strip billed as breaking a diplomatic deadlock with the Palestinians. Under pressure to keep his West Bank pullout plan on track, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the sweep launched Wednesday was aimed at recovering an abducted Israeli soldier and did not constitute reoccupation.
“The objective is bringing Gilad Shalit home alive, healthy and in one piece,” Olmert said in a speech. “We have no intention of recapturing Gaza. Neither do we intend to stay there.”
In a meeting Wednesday with JTA’s editorial staff in New York, Israeli Consul General Arye Mekel hinted that the operation is intended less to find Shalit — Israel is not believed to know his whereabouts in the crowded coastal strip — than it is to pressure Palestinians to hand him over.
The invasion also aims to deal a blow to Hamas’ terrorist infrastructure and stop the firing of rockets into Israel, Mekel said.
With no sign of life from Shalit, a 19-year-old armored corps corporal captured Sunday in a cross-border raid by Hamas and other Palestinian gunmen, there was fear of a major flare-up in fighting.
Raising the stakes further, Palestinian terrorists in the West Bank announced they had abducted a young settler, Eliyahu Asheri, 18, and would kill him unless Israel calls off its Gaza offensive.
As of Wednesday morning, Israeli forces had taken up positions around the defunct Palestinian Authority airport near the southern Gaza town of Rafah, effectively cutting off access to neighboring Egypt.
Security sources had expressed concern that Shalit might have been spirited across the border and on to Lebanon, where Hamas’ armed wing is headquartered.
That was ruled out by Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant, commander of Israeli forces in and around Gaza.
“Gilad Shalit is in the Gaza Strip,” he told reporters.
In parallel to the ground operation, the Israeli air force struck two bridges in central Gaza in a bid to prevent Shalit’s captors from moving him. Another strike, on Gaza’s main power station, knocked out electricity to many residents.
“To our regret, our response may bring about the suffering of civilians in the Gaza Strip. With that said, our operation is focusing on the terrorist operational infrastructure, to limit the possibility of Shalit being moved,” Gallant said.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who has been in talks with the Hamas government on defusing the crisis, condemned the Israeli offensive as a “crime.”
But the lack of serious casualties in the first stage suggested Israel was exercising restraint in hope of pressuring the Palestinians to produce Shalit.
Evidence was mounting that Sunday’s raid, in which two other soldiers were killed and seven wounded, was ordered not by Hamas politicians in Gaza but by the group’s top leader abroad, Khaled Meshaal. Meshaal, based in Syria, was said to be upset at talks between P.A. Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, of Hamas, and Abbas’ more moderate Fatah faction on a policy document that could be construed as implicitly recognizing Israel.
Mekel told JTA that Israel was “not interested” in the document, and chided Abbas for negotiating with Hamas rather than dismantling the group’s terrorist infrastructure, as he is obligated to do under the “road map” peace plan.
In any case, Israel has called the manifesto, penned by Palestinians in Israeli jails, insufficient to warrant resuming peace talks. But it could go some way toward helping Palestinians lift a Western aid embargo imposed when Hamas took power.
Olmert has hinted that Israel could strike at Meshaal, but for now efforts are focused on rescuing Shalit.
Failure to do so, combined with unabated Palestinian rocket fire from Gaza, would be a major setback to Olmert’s plan to “realign” Israeli borders by removing most West Bank settlements and annexing a few others behind the security fence.
Facing off with right-wing lawmakers in the Knesset on Tuesday, Olmert said he would not be dissuaded from his West Bank plan.