Clock Ticks On Shalit Release


Palestinian infighting is complicating efforts to win the release of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, captured by Palestinian terrorists in a cross-border raid from Gaza June 25, and Israeli officials are said to be considering their own raid to free him, according to Israeli analysts.

"There are signs that if Shalit is not released in the next two weeks, Israel is preparing a massive incursion into Gaza," said Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University. "They will say it is to look for Shalit, but it will be more than that. … It will be accompanied by a large-scale operation in Gaza to clean out all the explosives" and weapons that have been smuggled in from Egypt.

A report by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah Party reportedly contends that Hamas terrorists have smuggled "hundreds of tons" of weapons into Gaza in preparation of a large-scale conflict with Israel, World Net Daily reported Tuesday. It said Hamas now has in Gaza up to 1,300 tons of advanced rockets, anti-tank missiles, rocket propelled grenades, raw explosives, rifles, ammunition and other heavy weaponry.

Steinberg said the fear in Israel is that Hamas is striving to duplicate in Gaza a situation similar to the one Hezbollah had created in southern Lebanon: the placement along Israel’s border of thousands of rockets aimed at the Jewish state.

"At some point," Steinberg said, "Israel may reach the decision that there is not much to lose and that it is worth taking the shot. Whether or not Israeli forces will then occupy the Philadelphi corridor to stop further smuggling from Egypt is under consideration."

Palestinian internecine warfare erupted anew even as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was visiting the region and being told by Saudi Arabia and Egypt that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the root of all problems in the Middle East.

"The Palestinian problem is the scourge of this region," Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit told a news conference Tuesday after meeting with Rice in Jedda, Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal insisted that since the Palestinian-Israeli problem arose "the region has been destabilized." Steinberg said a claim that "it is all Israel’s fault is standard ritual" for the Arabs because "they don’t have anything else to say."

"They don’t believe it themselves but they say it to avoid dealing with the hard issues," he observed.

In her talks in the region, Rice called on all parties to help Abbas wrest power from Hamas. But Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was quoted as saying that until Shalit is released Israel would not give the Palestinian Authority any of the taxes it collects in its behalf, noted Moshe Elad, a researcher at the Shmuel Neaman Institute at the Technion.

"Tensions are very high" in Gaza, he noted. "And as long as tensions are high, it is very hard to negotiate."

He noted that Gheit, the Egyptian former minister, announced Monday that Hamas had rejected an offer to free Shalit for up to 1,000 Palestinian prisoners being held in Israeli prisons. But Arye Mekel, Israel’s consul general in New York, said he takes such reports with a grain of sand.

"Nobody knows outside of the few who are involved," he said. "It’s pure speculation. Remember the reports three weeks ago that he was about to be released?"

Elad pointed out that the Popular Resistance Committees, one of the three groups involved in Shalit’s abduction, said on Palestinian TV this week that if Israel invaded Gaza to free Shalit and dismantle the new weapons infrastructure, "the Shalit case is closed, which means it is going to hurt him."

Mordechai Kedar, a senior research associate at Bar-Ilan’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, said any negotiated deal for Shalit’s release would come as part of a "whole package of measures taken by Israel and the Palestinians together."

"Israel will not be willing to resolve the problem of Shalit and other prisoners when other issues are open, especially the missiles being launched daily [at Israeli communities] from Gaza and the weapons smuggling into Gaza," Kedar said.

Before meeting Rice, Olmert reportedly told visiting members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that Iran "is an existential threat against the State of Israel."