The Hamas-led terrorist attack and kidnapping outside the Gaza Strip Sunday, June 25, sent a shudder of instability across the Middle East. In contrast, the abduction and savage murder of two US troops of the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq, Thomas Tucker and Kristian Menchaca, this month horrified but did not agitate an entire region.
The rationale for this disproportionate effect is complicated. One of its elements is the fact that Israel is governed by a group of tyros who are out of their depth in matters of war and terror. Another is the improbable convergence in a single incident of all the blunders American and Israel policy-makers have made on the Palestinian issue and the global war on Islamist terror in the last 15 years.
A great many chickens came home to roost at one place in a single moment.
The timetable is instructive:
Sunday, June 25: Before dawn, a combined Palestinian group tunneled its way from the southern Gaza Strip under the border and came out behind the Israeli Telem army post opposite the Kerem Shalom crossing into Gaza. The post consisted of a tall watch tower packed with electronic gear, tanks and armored vehicles. The soldiers manning the post were surprised by the assailants coming from the Israeli side to their rear. Before they could react, the Palestinians hurled rocket-propelled grenades and hand grenades and demolished the tank and the armored APC, killing two members of the tank team and dragging Corp. Gilead Shalit across the border into Gaza. Two of the Hamas gunmen were killed by Israeli fire. The people at the top of the Israeli government and military had not doubt that the corporal would be home within hours.
That night, a Fatah team, members of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas’s own movement, kidnapped an 18-year old civilian, Eliahu Asheri from Itamar near Nablus, at French Hill, the northern exit from Jerusalem.
Israel clamped a land and sea blockade on the Gaza Strip, trapping 1.4m Palestinians including Abbas.
Monday, June 26: Israel masses hundreds of tanks and thousands of armored and special operations troops at three points outside the Gaza Strip, both as pressure to scare the kidnappers into giving up their victim, and in case they did not, to stand by for a rescue operation.
Diplomatic efforts led by Egypt, France (Gilead Shalit is a French citizen), Turkey to win round the Hamas military arm Ezz e-Din al-Qassam through intermediaries soon ran into impasse.
Tuesday, June 27: The abductors broke off even those minimal exchanges and went into hiding in a safe house they had prepared in advance in the Gaza Strip.
Some Israeli intelligence circles suggested that the abducted corporal had been smuggled across the border into Egyptian Sinai and moved on to an Arab country. The tones of Israeli warnings sharpened and threats were leveled at Syrian president Bashar Asad. This was because the Israeli officials in government, army and intelligence had become convinced that the hostage crisis was not susceptible to a solution unless military pressure was brought to bear on the Syrian leader. Asad, as sponsor of Khaled Meshaal who, from his Damascus-based Hamas command, orchestrated Hamas military operations in the Gaza Strip, was seen as the only person able to make Meshaal order the Israeli captive’s release.
Later that night, the Israeli air force bombed bridges and the Gaza Strip’s only transformer station before the tanks started rolling into the territory (See HOT POINTS below). Although this invasion offered a demonstration of Israeli might that filled television screens around the world, from the military point of view, it did not amount to a military offensive; the incoming Israeli force settled and remained stationary at several points outside the main towns of the south, Rafah and Khan Younis, encountering hardly any resistance.
At around 3:00 am that night, four Israeli F16 warplanes make low passes over the Syrian president’s summer palace in the Mediterranean coastal resort and port of Latakia.
Wednesday, June 28: Hamas leaders to a man – prime minister Ismail Haniyeh, foreign minister Mahmoud a-Zahar and interior minister Said Siyam, who is in charge of Palestinian security forces, dived underground and have not been seen since.
That night, special Israeli forces surround four houses in the posh Balawa section of Al Bireh, a section of the West Bank hub town of Ramallah. Situated there are the villas of Fatah leaders, including Mahmoud Abbas and Muhammed Dahlan, his former interior minister. The troops broke into several buildings including Fatah headquarters and detained two Fatah operatives on suspicion of involvement in the abduction of Eliahu Asheri Sunday night.
Thursday, June 29: Before dawn, the two operatives led Israeli troops to a field where they had buried the kidnapped 18-year old boy. He was found with bullet wounds to the head. The Fatah perpetrators later confessed they had been paid tens of thousands of dollars by the PRC for the crime. At about the same time, large army and border guard units spread out across the West Bank and rounded up 87 Hamas leaders, among them eight cabinet ministers, 20 members of the national legislature and two mayors, announcing they would be put on trial for complicity in terrorist acts and abetting a terrorist organization. In all twelve years of Palestinian autonomous rule, Israel has never arrested so many Palestinian functionaries and elected deputies.
The virtual decapitation of the Hamas-led government produced some drastic consequences:
1. Chairman Abbas is immobilized and most Palestinian political bodies have been put out of action.
2. Palestinian security services have become inoperative with no plans to stand up to Israeli incursions.
3. The only bodies still functioning and in control in the Gaza Strip and West Bank are the Palestinian terrorist groups and the militias under their command. The gun has become the law.
4. The rift has widened between Hamas office-holders headed by Ismail Haniyeh and the armed wing which holds the Israeli soldier hostage and takes its orders from the hardline Khaled Meshaal in Damascus.
5. The Fatah’s armed wing, the al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades (Tanzim), has taken to kidnapping Israelis and executing them.
Late Thursday, the Gaza operation was put on hold, after it was blocked by defense minister Amir Peretz against the wishes of prime minister Ehud Olmert. Peretz clung to the mottoes of “restraint and diplomacy”, while Olmert supported the military’s demand to ride in on its first impetus and complete the mission without delay. The deadlocked argument infuriated Israel’s generals.