Analysis: A bargaining chip or a burden for Hamas?
The fate of the Hamas government is now dependent on the fate of the kidnapped soldier; harming him is liable to constitute a death sentence.
Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Dan Halutz described Sunday's Palestinian attack on IDF positions near Kerem Shalom as an "act of terror." But the incident on the Gaza border was more of a guerrilla attack than a terror attack: A small, skilled force managed to surprise high-level IDF troops, kill two soldiers, kidnap another soldier and sustain relatively few losses.
Taking into consideration the ease with which the Hamas and Popular Resistance Committees members acted, it appears that they could easily have also infiltrated the neighboring kibbutz and massacred civilians.
There were reports Sunday night, after the cabinet meeting, about an extensive air and ground operation that the IDF has received permission to carry out. But the truth is that at this stage, Israel is limited in how it can react. The top priority right now is the return of the kidnapped soldier. The first 48 hours after the abduction will be dedicated to intensive efforts to exert pressure on the Palestinians, through every channel possible, in an effort to force them to return Corporal Gilad Shalit.
Indeed, on Sunday night Defense Minister Amir Peretz told Shalit's father that the primary consideration is to bring him home safely. The United States and Egypt (whose security delegation is in Gaza) will play a major role in these talks. They will need to explain to the Palestinians that this time Israel is serious and that if the soldier is not released, the IDF response will be far harsher than in the past.
The Hamas military wing models itself after Hezbollah. Both movements are known as "the opposition," and use similar tactics. Just as Hezbollah kidnapped three IDF soldiers from Har Dov along the northern border after Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon, Hamas has kidnapped a soldier from the Negev. Both have the same reason: They seek to use the soldiers as bargaining chips to win the freedom of Palestinian prisoners.
But Shalit was also meant to provide Hamas leaders with a kind of "insurance policy" in the face of potential Israeli assassination attempts.
Now Hamas must consider whether Sunday's attack, which many Palestinians spoke about as having restored national pride, was a mistake and whether the movement's military wing - which Palestinians think helped get rid of the IDF - will end up bringing it back into Gaza.
Conversations Sunday night with representatives of the Palestinian factions involved in the attack reflected an effort to renounce responsibility for the fate of the soldier, who may have become a burden rather than an asset. No one understands this better than Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, who kept silent Sunday. The military wing has placed a bomb in his hands, almost certainly without having consulted him beforehand.
If Shalit is not released immediately and if, heaven forbid, he does not survive captivity, the Palestinians have two scenarios to fear: a major IDF ground invasion of Gaza, and attacks on senior Hamas officials. The fate of the Hamas government is now dependent on the fate of the kidnapped soldier. Harming him is liable to constitute a death sentence for the government and some of its ministers. Hamas government spokesman Ghazi Hamed called on Israel on Sunday, in fluent Hebrew, almost in supplication, not to take steps that would lead to escalation.
Hamed, who said he doesn't know who the kidnappers are, knows who is behind the kidnapping, even though he won't admit it. They are Khaled Meshal, the head of Hamas' political bureau in Damascus, and Ahmed Jabari, leader of the movement's military wing in Gaza. Meshal and Jabari have pushed Haniyeh and his people into a corner.
The "Meshal exercise" also drew criticism from Fatah officials. In talks with Hamas leaders Sunday, PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas accused Meshal of sabotaging the agreement that the Palestinian factions were going to sign in regard to the prisoners' national unity document. Egyptian diplomats in Gaza, who tried in vain Sunday night to reach the Hamas military wing, realized that the person to whom they actually must address their grievances is in Damascus.