Copyrighted material


by Jim Lobe

Israel, Palestine Crisis Forms Over Hostage

(IPS) WASHINGTON -- Amid worsening violence between Palestinian fighters and the Israeli military in Gaza, calls are mounting here for the Bush administration to take a stronger role in ending the escalating conflict.

Aside from calling for the unconditional release of an Israeli soldier held by Palestinian militants believed to be tied to the ruling Hamas party, and urging Israel to ensure the flow of humanitarian supplies to the civilian population, Washington has been largely silent about a developing crisis with potentially serious regional implications.

"Other than statements calling for the release of (Cpl. Gilad) Shalit and for a tempering of the violence, the United States is AWOL," complained M.J. Rosenberg, an analyst at the Israel Policy Forum (IPF). "And its absence is being felt."

Washington's silence has contributed to the impression that, despite its support for Hamas' participation in last January's Palestinian elections, the administration now backs what a growing number of analysts believe is an deliberate effort by the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to oust the party from power.

"The Bush administration appears to have dropped any objections to Israeli efforts to topple the Palestinian Authority's (PA) democratically elected Hamas government," wrote Ori Nir, diplomatic correspondent of the major U.S. Jewish weekly The Forward, in Friday's edition.

Among other indications, he noted, was the administration's failure to intervene when Israel last week arrested dozens of Hamas officials and lawmakers, or to protest its bombing of the Gaza offices of Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniya and the PA's Interior Ministry.

"It's like the dog that didn't bark," David Makovsky, a senior analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a conservative, pro-Israel think tank, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) Friday. He said Washington had also pressed its European partners in the so-called Quartet to mute their criticism of Israeli actions.

The current crisis dates to early June when eight Palestinians, including an entire family, were killed on a Gaza beach, apparently by an Israeli artillery shell that had gone astray. Palestinian militants, reportedly joined by Hamas units that had previously observed a 16-month truce, responded by intensifying their firing of short-range Qassam rockets across the border into Israel.

As both sides escalated their exchanges, a group of Palestinians attacked a border outpost just inside Israel two weeks ago, killing two soldiers and taking Shalit back into Gaza, where he is still believed to be held.

While Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called for his release, Hamas leaders backed the militants' demands that Israel release Palestinian women and children in its custody in exchange.

Ruling out any such deal, Olmert sealed off Gaza, demanding Shalit's unconditional release. In the days that followed, Israeli forces crossed into the territory from which they had withdrawn only last August, rounded up dozens of Hamas officials, destroyed Gaza's U.S.-financed power plant and several bridges, and even buzzed the residence of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad who, according to Israel, is the chief sponsor of the Damascus-based leader of Hamas' military wing.

The violence has since increased, reaching a high point Thursday when some 21 Palestinians and one Israeli soldier were killed as Israeli tanks pushed into populated areas of Gaza for the first time.

Deprivations caused by both the closures and the destruction of the power plant have spurred strong protests by Arab governments and humanitarian groups, which have described Israel's assault as an act of "collective punishment" against Gaza's civilian population in violation of international humanitarian law.

"The (Israeli) response is disproportionate and cruel, even if one believes that it is merely an effort by the Olmert government to free its soldier, an excuse that even the Israeli press no longer believes," charged James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute (AAI) here.

"What is occurring in Gaza today is nothing short of a crime against humanity -- unless, that is, is you believe that the suffering of one soldier outweighs the suffering being imposed on 1.5 million innocent Palestinian men, women and children," he added, noting that even before the latest crisis, two-thirds of Gaza's population was living below the poverty line.

But, like Zogby, most analysts believe that Olmert's intentions go far beyond securing Shilat's freedom and include, among other goals, the destruction of the Hamas government.

"The arrest of the Hamas politicians -- Abbas and everyone understands that as a step against the government," Menachem Klein, a political scientist at Israel's Bar-Ilan University, told the New York Times last week. "It's part of a grand strategy, to undermine the Hamas government, that the Israeli cabinet decided upon in its first meeting after Hamas took power."

That goal, according to Gareth Evans and Robert Malley, president and Middle East program director, respectively, of the International Crisis Group (ICG), is shared by the West, including the U.S., which has deliberately starved the PA of aid and access to credit in hopes that "popular discontent with its non-performance (would) ensure that Hamas experience in power comes to a rapid end."

The problem, according to the two men, is the current offensive has the opposite effect.

"(I)n the current confrontation, Hamas's support is growing, its ranks are becoming more unified, and its detractors are being reduced to silence," they wrote in the Financial Times this week. Indeed, as the siege and the violence intensified, Abbas' Fatah, whose Gaza City offices were also attacked by Israeli aircraft this week, has moved closer toward Hamas.

"(A)ny Israeli attempt to manipulate the Palestinian political situation so as to bring about the downfall of the Haniyeh government and its replacement by moderates," wrote veteran Israeli security analyst Yossi Alpher on his Web site this week, "is almost certainly doomed to failure." Moreover, having gone into Gaza, Olmert may find it much more difficult to get out.

Meanwhile, U.S.-backed Arab leaders, including Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak who, at Israel's behest, has tried to quietly mediate between the two sides, are reportedly warning of growing popular outrage -- and support for Hamas -- in their own countries as a result of Israel's campaign, adding to pressure on Washington to take a more active role.

"Decisive U.S. involvement, which the Bush administration seems to avoid when it can, will be inevitable to prevent the highly combustible Irael-Hamas warfare inflaming the entire region," according to John Cooley, a veteran Middle East analyst, writing in the Christian Science Monitor.

And while the key components of an accord, including some kind of prisoner swap, that could restore the status quo are fairly clear, according to Evans and Malley, "getting any such agreement will require far more active and assertive third party mediation than has been the case so far."

Comments? Send a letter to the editor.

Albion Monitor   July 6, 2006   (

All Rights Reserved.

Contact for permission to use in any format.