By Danny Rubinstein
All the Palestinian spokespersons were unanimous this weekend in severely condemning the Israel Defense Forces’ operation in the town of Beit Hanun. Newspapers came out in special editions bearing big black headlines announcing dozens of dead. What made the Israeli government take on such an extensive operation?
Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, a veteran leftist and member of the Palestinian parliament on behalf of an independent faction, explained on the Al Jazeera network that the Israeli operation has no real connection to the firing of Qassam rockets. According to Barghouti, Israel could have maintained the cease-fire, and in so doing stop the rocket fire, but it has not chosen to do so. The IDF raid on northern Gaza has, according to the Palestinians’ interpretation, a clear political background. It is interesting to examine this background, even for those who absolutely reject such a viewpoint.
The explanation begins with the press conference called last Tuesday by Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit. There he announced details regarding the deal that is developing with respect to releasing kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners. The deal is closely tied to the prospect of forming a Palestinian unity, or experts’ government, and a renewal of the peace process based on the road map plan. The Egyptian minister was optimistic.
Egyptian officials have been awaiting the arrival of Khaled Meshal. The Hamas leader was meant last week to join his friend Imad al-Alami who, together with Egyptian General Omar Suleiman, prepared a draft of the agreement to release Shalit and the Palestinian prisoners. Everyone wanted to hurry and conclude the details of the deal before President Hosni Mubarak and General Suleiman left for China, Russia and Kazakhstan.
In the meantime Palestinian sources began to publish details concerning the identities of the prisoners who are about to be released. Apart from the women and youths, the group is primarily comprised of about 360 prisoners incarcerated in Israel since before the Oslo Accords. Most are defined as having "blood on their hands." One, the most veteran member of the group, is Said al-Ataba, who has been in jail since July 1977, nearly 30 years. Four additional men have been incarcerated for more than 25 years, and 13 more have been serving time in Israel for about 20 years.
Some of the prisoners are better known than others. They are all considered heroes by the Palestinian public, who are waiting for their release. The Palestinian press published their names and other information. No doubt their release will be accompanied by large-scale celebrations in the West Bank and Gaza, perhaps unprecedented ones. One Palestinian spokesperson said that it would be the first time prisoners are exchanged as a result of actions executed within the occupied territories and not, as was always the case before, with the exchange of Palestinian prisoners being done with foreign elements.
And who will receive credit for such a grand victory? Khaled Meshal, of course. He is creating the tension – will he come to Cairo or not now? – and the appropriate atmosphere. It all depends on Meshal and his comrades in the Hamas leadership, who even speak of the prospect that they, leaders of the movement, will bring about the release of Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, and thus show Abu Mazen to be helpless and Fatah to be an empty vessel.
The Israeli government, obviously, does not want this to happen. Also the United States and other nations worldwide, including Arab nations, cannot afford such an impressive victory for the Islamic zealots of Hamas. This is the background, according to the Palestinians, for the IDF operations in Gaza.
Meshal and Hamas would indeed win much esteem for their success in releasing prisoners, whom no one else has been able to free before – but the Palestinian people will have a very high price to pay. The price of large-scale destruction and bloodshed, which will bring the Palestinian public to question: Was is it all worth it? This ploy was used by the Israeli government in Lebanon with Hassan Nasrallah and Hezbollah, and it worked out pretty well. Why shouldn’t it work in Gaza?
One Palestinian reporter already began taking this perspective when he said: While we speak during these weeks of the release of a thousand Palestinian prisoners – the Israeli occupation army has arrested nearly 2,000. So what do we achieve by this?
© Haaretz, 6 November, 2006