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by Peter Hirschberg

Whose Bomb Killed The Palestinian Family On A Gaza Beach?

(IPS) JERUSALEM -- Ismail Haniyeh had not been seen since an Israeli soldier was kidnapped last Sunday by Palestinian militants from a military base close to the Israel-Gaza border. Fearing he might be targeted for assassination by Israel, the Hamas Prime Minister scratched his public appearances.

But finally, on Friday, he re-emerged, in a mosque in the coastal strip, where he accused Israel of using the soldier's abduction as a pretext for an invasion of Gaza, which he said was aimed at toppling his government.

"This total war is proof of a premeditated plan," he railed. Referring to eight Hamas cabinet ministers and 20 lawmakers arrested by Israel overnight Wednesday in the West Bank, Haniyeh said Israel was trying to "hijack" his government. But, he added, "we say no positions will be hijacked, no governments will fall."

For all his bravado, Ismail Haniyeh's life has just gotten a whole lot more complicated. And it's not just because of Israeli threats that if the abducted soldier is harmed, "his blood" will be on Haniyeh's head -- a warning Israel delivered personally in the early hours of Sunday morning when warplanes bombed the Palestinian prime minister's empty offices in Gaza.

Ever since being appointed Prime Minister in March, Haniyeh has been trying to convince the world that his government is a legitimate body -- both the United States and the European Union have listed Hamas as a terrorist organization -- and that crippling economic sanctions imposed by the West on the Palestinian Authority should be lifted.

The involvement of the military wing of Hamas in the kidnapping of the soldier, as well as the Islamic movement's decision to rejoin those militant groups who have been firing rockets from Gaza into Israel, will have severely undercut Haniyeh's efforts to earn a stamp of approval from the international community. Instead, these actions will have bolstered the image among Western leaders of Hamas as a radical, violent organization, rather than a movement, albeit with strong anti-Israel convictions, ready to adopt the type of pragmatism required of a party in power.

As the kidnapping saga has dragged on, Haniyeh has also increasingly found himself caught between his need to show a pragmatic, responsible face to the world, and his desire not to be viewed as a sell-out by his own supporters. If in the first days of the showdown, Hamas government officials said they were working to try and end the kidnapping affair speedily, they have now changed their tune, insisting that if Israel wants to get back 19-year-old Corporal Gilad Shalit, the abducted soldier, it will have to release Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails in exchange.

Haniyeh will have been acutely aware of the demonstrations in Gaza by families of prisoners jailed in Israel, demanding that the soldier not be released unless Palestinians prisoners are also set free. Revered in Palestinian society as the spearhead of the struggle for national liberation, the prisoners -- there are some 8,000 -- have been sending messages to Gaza, demanding Shalit not be released unless it is in exchange for some of them.

"The kidnapping has created a dynamic that is going to make it very difficult for anyone to release the soldier without getting anything in return," former Palestinian minister for planning Ghassan Khatib told IPS.. "For Hamas, the military operation was successful. It increased their popularity. But if they release the soldier without getting anything in return, the whole operation will backfire for them on a political level. It doesn't matter how much pressure Israel applies, if they don't get something in return, he won't be released."

Three Palestinian militant groups holding the soldier released a statement overnight Friday in which they demanded the release of 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, as well as an end to Israel's incursion into Gaza.

Responding to the demand, Israeli officials said Saturday that the government would not bargain for the release of the kidnapped soldier. "Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has reiterated that there will be no deals, that either Shalit will be released or we will act to bring about his release," said Mark Regev, the foreign ministry spokesman.

In the first few days after the kidnapping, a divide appeared to be emerging within Hamas, with the political leadership calling for a speedy end to the affair and the Islamic movement's military wing insisting that the soldier only be released in exchange for Palestinian prisoners.

There also appeared to be a tug-of-war developing between Haniyeh, who wanted to adopt a more moderate approach in resolving the crisis, and the Damascus-based Khaled Meshal, the most senior Hamas figure outside of the territories and who Israel believes gave the order for the kidnapping. Meshal has insisted that the soldier only be released in exchange for prisoners.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Haniyeh, the respective leaders of their bitterly opposed political factions -- Fatah and Hamas -- suddenly seemed to be on the same wavelength, anxious to briskly end the kidnapping saga. Both, it appeared, feared the consequences of a fierce Israeli ground offensive in Gaza.

The sudden cooperation was also reflected in the agreement that was reached, just hours before Israeli forces pushed into Gaza, between Fatah and Hamas on a document calling for the creation of a Palestinian state along 1967 borders -- an implicit recognition by Hamas of Israel's existence.

The document, which is strongly opposed by some elements within Hamas, like Meshal, also calls for the creation of a national unity government in place of a Hamas-only government, which Abbas and Haniyeh hope will convince the U.S. and Europe to begin lifting sanctions. Israel has dismissed the document as an "internal" Palestinian matter, and Israeli officials have emphasized that while it calls for an end to attacks inside the Jewish state, it determines that attacks on Israeli targets inside the occupied territories will continue.

Ghassan Khatib views Hamas's willingness to accept the document as "a move in the right direction. It may not satisfy Israel, but it is a signal Hamas is willing to move," he says. "Hamas needs to be encouraged for this step, possibly in the form of a renewal of international aid."

But a day after the document was initialled, representatives of the Hamas-led government began calling for the release of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the abducted soldier. It was "only logical" for an exchange to take place, the government said in a statement. "Previous Israeli governments have done so."

The change appeared to be a reaction to growing pressure within the Palestinian public, especially from the families of prisoners, not to release the soldier unless Israel agreed to a swap. But Khatib has another explanation: "The (Hamas-led) Palestinian government tried to distinguish its activity from that of the military wing of Hamas," he says. "But it didn't work. The Israelis and the international community view Hamas as Hamas, no matter if there is a difference between the political and military wing."

As for Israel's arrest of Hamas ministers and lawmakers, Khatib says this has "put an end" to any debate within the Islamic movement over adopting a more moderate strategy.

Israel has set three conditions for talks with Hamas: renounce violence, recognize the Jewish state, and pledge to uphold all previous agreements between Israel and the Palestinians. Western leaders have adopted all three conditions. But Khatib believes that regardless of who is in power on the Palestinian side, Israel is not interested in talking because it is committed to a policy of unilateralism. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, highly skeptical that progress can be made in talks with the Palestinians, has reiterated his preference for a unilateral withdrawal in the West Bank.

If the kidnapping crisis is over soon, says Khatib, "we will see Hamas continuing to moderate. But Israel isn't interested in the Palestinian Authority and so will continue to escalate matters on the security front. So it's not the attack (on the soldiers) and the kidnapping that is the cause of the deterioration. Israel has chosen the unilateral approach and is less and less interested in dealing with the Palestinians."

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Albion Monitor   July 3, 2006   (

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