The only rational course of action that can save lives – including the life of Gilad Schalit – is to find a way to reach a bilateral cease-fire that would include a prisoner release.
Most analysts of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza mention the ultimate goal of bringing down the Hamas government, beyond, of course, releasing the kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit.
The arrests of more than 80 Hamas activists, parliamentarians and members of the Palestinian Authority government, together with pushing much of its Gaza leadership underground, is aimed at making the PA government non-existent and non-functional. Israel’s media has even suggested that Fatah leaders support these moves to dismount the Hamas leadership. Israel has also announced that no one “involved in terrorism” has immunity and that even the Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh could be a legitimate target.
The reactions of the international community to the arrests have been muted. Attempts to condemn Israel in the Security Council failed; the US and most EU countries have expressed displeasure with Israel’s Gaza moves, but little more than that. That is not to suggest that the same limited response would be given if Israel were to assassinate Haniyeh and other Hamas leaders.
While the Foreign Ministry claims there is no separation between the political and military wings of Hamas, IDF intelligence and the Shin Bet all speak of separate wings with separate commanders. They say Haniyeh has no influence over the military wing of Hamas. There are those who even question whether the Damascus-based Hamas political leader Khaled Mashaal has control over the military wing. Mashaal claims he does not.
The attack on Kerem Shalom was probably not ordered by Mashaal and the politburo in Damascus. Mashaal probably only learned about it after the fact and exploited it to make gains on the ground in Gaza. There is no doubt that the kidnapping of Schalit is popular among Palestinians who see it as the one hope of getting their prisoners – some 10,000 – released from Israeli prisons. They know that Israel gave in to Hizbullah and its leader Hassan Nasrallah and exchanged hundreds of prisoners for the bodies of three soldiers. So why not hope that a live soldier would yield an even better return?
ISRAEL IS trapped. If the IDF and the intelligence services cannot locate the hiding place of the kidnappers and if a military raid to secure Schalit’s release cannot be undertaken, the option of negotiations becomes more than real. But if Israel does negotiate with the kidnappers, we are almost guaranteed there will be copycat kidnappings every week. So with this on the radar screens, Israel has set the course to bring down the Hamas government. It sounds good and it certainly would have the support of Washington, but what happens after the Hamas government is brought down?
Can PA President Mahmoud Abbas take over? Can he declare a state of emergency and then appoint a Fatah-led government? Would any Palestinian anywhere think that the new government had any real legitimacy? Could Israel step in and reoccupy the territories and take responsibility for governing them? Is Israel ready to take that responsibility? Is Israel ready to ask the international community to step in and take over governing responsibilities? Is the international community ready to do that?
The answer to all of these questions is no. If Israel does bring down the Hamas government, the most likely scenario will be one of total anarchy and chaos. No one will be able to rule and no one will be safe – not Palestinians and not Israelis.
The kidnapping of Gilad Schalit has placed the Hamas leadership, Abbas and Israel into the same trap. No one wants to be there and no one knows how to get out. While Israel would like to exploit the situation for military gains against other targets, such as the Kassam rockets, a military invasion of Gaza on a large scale is not likely to achieve that goal. Some right-wing leaders, such as Effi Eitam, have suggested the wholesale extermination of the Hamas leadership. Others, including the justifiably frustrated mayor of Sderot, Eli Moyal, have suggested making Beit Hanun and Beit Lahiya uninhabitable. While Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz would probably enjoy higher popularity ratings if they accepted those insane and morally anti-Jewish and bankrupt ideas, Israel would push itself further into the corner of doom with absolutely no way out.
THE POLITICAL tragedy of the current situation is that all of the leaders have so far come out losers: Olmert, Peretz, Abbas and even Haniyeh. Even Khaled Mashaal, who was at first boosted in popularity, mostly because Israelis gave him more credit than he deserves for the Kerem Shalom attack, is now on the losing side, because he doesn’t really control what is happening in Gaza.
In the short run, what is most important is bringing Schalit home safely. In the long run, what is most important is leaving opportunities open for rebuilding stability and future negotiations. Without stability and the ability to return to negotiations, there can be no realignment and Israel will be further doomed to hold on to territories that it no longer wants to hold.
It is very interesting that there is no word in Hebrew for “de-escalation” – maybe that is one of the reasons why it is so difficult to design and implement. Both sides need a ladder to come down from their positions. The only rational course of action that can save lives – including the life of Gilad Schalit – is to find a way to reach a bilateral cease-fire that would include a prisoner release. The release of prisoners would be conditional on adherence to the cease-fire and not linked to the kidnapping. The killing of hundreds of Palestinians, even if they support Hamas, will not help Israel’s strategic situation. If Hamas is brought to its knees, Israel will have to face Islamic Jihad and al-Qaida or worse. Killing Palestinians and humiliating them has never created Palestinian moderation. There is still a choice that can be made. There are no guarantees, but taking a risk on a cease-fire that will release Schalit seems a lot better price to pay than every other possible alternative.
Gershon is an advisor to Israeli, Palestinian and International Prime Ministers on the Middle East Peace Process and the founder and director of IPCRI, the Israeli-Palestinian Public Policy Institute. He was the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel between Israel and Hamas for the release of 1,027 prisoners – mainly Palestinians and Arab-Israelis of which 280 were sentenced to life in prison for planning and perpetrating various attacks against Jewish targets that resulted in the killing of 569 Israelis in exchange for one Israeli soldier, Gilad Schalit. Gershon is actively involved in research and advocacy concerning topics such as social policy, environmental security, political strategy, peace education, economics, culture and in the development of affordable solar projects with the goal of providing clean electricity for 50 million people by 2020.