Israel has stepped up its military offensive against Palestine. Codenamed Operation Summer Rain, it began on June 28 in response to the kidnapping of Corporal Gilad Shalit of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF). Palestinian militant groups kidnapped Shalit on June 25 when they raided a military post near Kibbutz Kerem Shalom in Israeli territory just outside the Gaza Strip. The militants had infiltrated into Israel through a 300-metre tunnel dug under the Gaza border fence near the military post. Two Israeli soldiers, Lt. Hanan Barak and Sgt. Pavel Slutsker were killed in the attack. Hamas' military wing, known as Izzedine al-Qassam Brigade, and two other groups connected to Hamas - the Popular Resistance Committee and the Army of Islam - have claimed responsibility for the kidnapping. Corporal Shalit is the first Israeli soldier to be captured by Palestinians since 1994.
Palestinian officials have, however, denied any knowledge of the kidnapping. President Mahmoud Abbas has stated that the raid was orchestrated by Hamas' Khaled Mashaal, who lives in exile in Syria, without consulting the Hamas-led Government in Palestine. But this claim was refuted by a Hamas official in Beirut, who accused Fatah of implicating Mashaal in order to provide Israel with a pretext to target him.
The Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has, however, blamed the Palestinian Authority headed by President Abbas and the Hamas-led Palestinian government as "responsible" for the incident and the consequences that were likely to follow. He termed the kidnapping as part of a "murderous, hateful, fanatical Islamic extremist desire to destroy the state of Israel." Israeli Army's Chief of Staff Dan Halutz also squarely blamed Hamas for the kidnapping.
The timing of the raid by the Palestinian militant groups was indeed significant. It occurred on the day when Fatah and Hamas were to release a document, which implicitly recognized Israel's right to exist and was aimed at easing Western sanctions on the Hamas government. The document also outlined a common political platform, with the Hamas government authorising Mahmoud Abbas to conduct negotiations with Israel. The document must have irked hardliners within Hamas. The raid forestalled the release of the document. Perhaps the attack and kidnapping was also indicative of growing divisions within Hamas' more moderate faction ruling in Gaza and its hard-line factions spread across the region. Though Hamas has vehemently denied suggestions of a growing internal split, it has not been able to come up with a convincing response as to why it was clueless about the June 25 raid on the Israeli military post carried out by groups affiliated to it.
The militant groups have demanded the release of some 8,500 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons in return for Shalit's release. Ruling out any negotiations or bargaining with the kidnappers for the release of Corporal Shalit, Israel launched Operation Summer after the Israeli air force struck at the power plant and bridges in Gaza strip. The strike at Gaza's only power plant plunged most of it into darkness. At a press conference in Gaza on July 7, President Abbas expressed anguish that Israel, by destroying schools, a power plant, bridges, roads, and government building was "not only trying to collapse the Hamas government but bring down the Palestinian authority wholesale."
Concerned about the ongoing developments in Gaza, the UN Security Council held an emergency meeting on June 30. Ambassador Riyad Mansour, Permanent Observer of Palestine to the United Nations, described the Israeli actions as "flagrant military aggression." In a sharp and stinging address to the Security Council, he accused Israel of planning the military offensive much before the June 25 kidnapping of the Israeli soldier and went on to state that Israel had issued a series of threats and declarations of its intention to carry out pre-emptive strikes against the Gaza Strip. He urged the Security Council to condemn the Israeli action and pressurize it to end hostilities immediately. For his part, the Deputy Israeli Ambassador to the UN Daniel Carmon asserted that Israel has increasingly come to realise that its pull out from Gaza last year was a mistake. He stated that Gaza was turning into a base for terrorist groups supported by the elected Hamas government. The US Ambassador to the UN, John Bolton echoed the Israeli Deputy Ambassador's views on the situation. He also drew a linkage between the recent surge of violence in Gaza Strip and the role of Iran and Syria in sponsoring terrorism in the region.
The situation on the ground at present is volatile. Said Sayyam, Interior Minister for Hamas, has ordered all Palestinian security forces to fight the Israelis in Gaza. President Abbas has, however, termed the order "invalid". In the meantime, though limiting itself to air strikes and surgical ground offensives in the beginning, Israel has gradually upped the ante. Prime Minister Olmert and other senior Israeli security officers have agreed on a broad-based military campaign to get the kidnapped soldier released and prevent ongoing Palestinian rockets from targeting the Israeli city of Ashkelon. On July 5, Israeli tanks and troops entered northern Gaza and exchanged fire with Palestinian gunmen. Violence has also spread to Nablus in the occupied West Bank. Fearing a speedy acceleration in the levels of violence, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan issued a statement on July 8 calling for an immediate halt to the "disproportionate" use of force by Israel, which has already resulted in a number of Palestinian deaths, as well as the cessation of rocket fire into Israel by Palestinian militants.
Israel has, however, shown no signs of stopping its military operation. The Israeli Security Cabinet has issued a statement on the urgent need to change the rules of engagement with the Hamas-led government. It also indicates that Israel must continue targeting Hamas institutions and cordon off the Strip to limit terrorist movements. The current Israeli policy is clearly indicative of the path that would be trodden in the coming months: a trajectory of increasing violence and escalating civilian casualties. Israel's latest military actions in the Gaza have led to the death of 26 Palestinian civilians and the wounding of 80 others. Meanwhile, Arab nations have expressed fear that Israel's counter-offensive in Palestine could turn the region into a cauldron of unrest. The Israeli action could also have negative fallout on the ongoing fragile security situation in neighbouring Iraq.
The post 9/11 international situation has witnessed aggressive uses of force to combat terrorism across international borders. The logic is that since terrorists respect no borders neither can states that are fighting the menace. However, Israel's military action in Gaza is clearly disproportionate with regard to both the means used (read military intervention) and the end sought. For seeking the release of one kidnapped soldier, no state can justify military intervention on the scale that Israel has undertaken, which threatens the entire population of Gaza.
At this juncture, it is important that negotiations, short of prolonged military action, should take centre-stage. President Abbas has also expressed the hope that Egyptian-led negotiations would succeed in mitigating the crisis. In this light, the statement of Avi Ditcher, government minister in charge of Internal Security and former head of Shin Bet should be taken serious note of. He said that Israel is open to the release of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Shilat's release and the re-establishment of a credible cease-fire. Such a posture could enable a negotiated settlement to the present crisis in Gaza.