Israel’s planned operation to rescue Shalit could spark a new Intifada, writes Khalid Amayreh
There is a growing impression among observers in Palestine-Israel that Israel may be preparing a “rescue operation” to free Gilad Shalit, the Israeli occupation army soldier who was taken prisoner in Gaza by Palestinian fighters more than two years ago.
Israeli intelligence services claim they know the whereabouts of Shalit, specifically the Gaza street where he is being held. However, serious observers here doubt the credibility of these claims, arguing that Israel would have carried out a rescue operation a long time ago had the Israeli intelligence known Shalit’s place of detention.
The rescue operation scenario is described by some Israeli political analysts as “generally politically safe” if the operation ends successfully. Needless to say, “successfully” here means accomplishing the mission of liberating Shalit and bringing him back to Israel alive.
The Israeli intelligence services have been hunting for very conceivable piece of information that would enable Israel to locate Shalit’s place of captivity. This week, the Israeli press, quoting anonymous sources, reported that the Shin Beth was offering potential Palestinian informers the sum of $10,000 in return for providing credible and authentic information that would lead to the liberation of Shalit from Hamas’s custody.
However, Palestinian officials scoffed at the latest Israeli feat, calling it “a reflection of frustration and despair”. Some Israeli security services, relying on information extracted from Gazans rounded up during the repeated Israeli incursions into the Gaza Strip prior to the Egyptian-mediated ceasefire with Hamas, have pointed out that powerful bombs were planted in the vicinity of the building where Shalit is thought to be held. This implies that any prospective rescue operation to free Shalit is expected to end in failure.
There are certain indications that the current transitional government in Israel may well be willing to carry out a rescue operation regardless of the consequences. The reason for this is linked to the upcoming Israeli elections and the end of the Olmert government’s term in office.
The Kadima Party and its erstwhile junior coalition partner, the Labour Party, headed by Defence Minister Ehud Barak, realise that with Shalit remaining in captivity in Gaza, Likud leader Benyamin Netanyahu is likely to put them on the defensive and use the issue as an effective propaganda tool in his election campaign.
Hence, a successful or even partly successful rescue operation would serve as a spectacular publicity booster for both the new Kadima leader Tzipi Livni and Ehud Barak, the man who would be directly responsible for ordering and overseeing the operation.
Nonetheless, while a decision to carry out an operation can be taken anytime, assuming that Israel does possess sufficient intelligence information to ensure a successful outcome, the Israeli government would have to seriously consider the political and other ramifications of failure since the chances of failure equal if not exceed the chances of success.
In this case, “whoever takes the decision to carry out an operation will have to bear the full consequences,” says Ahmed Youssef, advisor to Ismail Haniyeh, the prime minister of the Hamas-led government in Gaza. “The Israelis have left no stone unturned in a desperate effort to discover Shalit’s whereabouts, but to no avail.”
However, some analysts argue that the Israeli army might very well opt to assassinate or abduct a number of important Hamas figures, including high-ranking officials in order to compensate for the failure of the operation and also to mollify Israeli public opinion. “They [the Israeli army] would abduct ministers and lawmakers and humiliate them publicly in order to compensate the Israeli public for the possible death of Shalit and failure of the operation,” one Israeli journalist intimated to Al-Ahram Weekly.
Israel had already abducted hundreds of Hamas’s members, including some 40 lawmakers, government ministers and other elected officials, in a failed attempt to bully Hamas to release Shalit. Israel had also carried out numerous deadly and devastating incursions all over the Gaza Strip to pressure the Islamist government to free Shalit, prompting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to complain that the Palestinian people have already paid too much for Shalit.
More to the point, the Israeli government is giving the impression that it has nearly exhausted all political efforts to get Shalit released, including exerting pressure on the Egyptian government to in turn pressure Hamas to show “flexibility” and accept a more modest number of Palestinian prisoners who would be freed in exchange for Shalit.
However, the Egyptian leadership has refused to succumb to Israeli pressure. A few weeks ago, President Hosni Mubarak was quoted as telling an Israeli reporter that Egypt expected Israel to address Hamas’s demands with regard to the Palestinian prisoners. Hamas interpreted Mubarak’s remarks as implying that Egypt is rejecting Israeli efforts to instigate President Mubarak against Hamas.
Apart from a possible rescue operation, Israel has two alternatives vis-à-vis the Shalit affair. First, reaching a swap deal with Hamas through Egyptian mediation in which case the Israeli government would have to release most or all Palestinian prisoners Hamas is insisting must be freed before Shalit can be returned to Israel.
This is the view of Saleh Al-Naami, an Israeli affairs correspondent based in the Gaza Strip. “I think Mr Olmert is in a better position now to agree to a swap that would more or less meet Hamas’s conditions without having to pay a devastating political price,” Al-Naami told the Weekly. “Olmert has nothing to lose; he is leaving for good, and he must be contemplating culminating his rule with something he would be remembered for.”
However, this scenario is unlikely to materialise, at least before the Israeli elections slated to take place on 10 February. Indeed, releasing hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, along with the concomitant spectacular celebrations, would be a serious public relations liability for the present government, which would translate into a significant PR asset for the right-wing camp, especially for Likud leader Benyamin Netanyahu.
In addition, releasing a large number of Palestinian prisoners would undoubtedly be a great booster for Hamas which could undermine PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s public standing, especially in light of the clear failure of the American-backed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
Hence, it is nearly out of question that Olmert would take such a decision even if Hamas decided to relent on the number and quality of the prisoners Hamas wants to see released. Moreover, the stiff opposition by the Shin Beth, Israel’s chief domestic security agency, to releasing a large number of Palestinian detainees is likely to militate against this scenario.
A third and plausible possibility is that the current Israeli government will simply leave the matter for the next Israeli government to resolve. In this case, the next Israeli prime minister, who many pundits assume will be Netanyahu, will have to resolve the issue, but under less public and political pressure in comparison to the current Kadima-led government.
However, even hawkish Netanyahu would have to consider the consequences and ramifications of a rescue operation, especially with President-elect Barack Obama in the White House. “The scene of murdered and mutilated children in the streets of Gaza wouldn’t be the right thing to begin healthy relations between Netanyahu and Obama,” one Israeli journalist said.
Furthermore, a military operation targeting Hamas would certainly spark off an all-out confrontation with Hamas Israel and Egypt as well.
In 1997, Netanyahu ordered the assassination of Hamas’s politburo chief Khaled Meshaal in Amman. The assassination attempt failed and the two would-be Mossad assassins were captured by Jordanian security. However, the operation prompted then King Hussein of Jordan to demand that Israel release from custody Hamas’s founder and spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. Yassin was released and allowed to return to Gaza, contributing to the growing influence of Hamas. He was eventually murdered by Israel on 22 March 2004.
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