Thursday, January 22, 2009

Damage Control

Three weeks and 1,285 lives later, both Israel and Gaza are cleaning up the mess. As I mentioned a few days ago, weakening Hamas was not the sole objective of the offensive. IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, who was abducted in the summer of 2006, is still behind enemy lines, although whether he is alive or dead remains to be seen. Public pressure to retrieve Shalit is tremendous. Protests are held demanding that the government facilitate his release, letter writing campaigns are run, and Ha'aretz newspaper has a perpetually-running PSA on its front page, reminding readers how long Shalit has been in captivity (942 days, 5 hours, 46 minutes, and 42 seconds, as I'm writing this). The fact that time ran out on this operation before Shalit could be rescued is a crushing blow to the current administration, especially Tzipi Livni, who may be blamed for the failure, hurting her chances in the upcoming election for Prime Minister.

So Israel is doing its media spin thing. The AP's Ben Hubbard writes today:
Israel indicated Thursday that it wants to swap Palestinians held in Israeli jails for an Israeli soldier captured in 2006 as part of a longer-term truce after three weeks of fighting in Gaza.

Israeli media said some Cabinet ministers have softened their positions on releasing dangerous Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the soldier, Sgt. Gilad Schalit, signaling the government is trying to work out a deal with Hamas ahead of Israeli elections next month.
What makes this story a big yawn-fest for those who have been paying attention is that Israel has been saying this for at least six months. The two governments were negotiating, through the ubiquitous moderator Egypt, back in July about how many prisoners Hamas would get in exchange for Shalit. Israeli leaders will have to balance the unpopularity of releasing convicted murderers against the popularity of bringing Shalit home.

In an effort to make it seem like everything is going according to plan, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said recently, "I believe the war created levers that could hasten Gilad Schalit's return home." Meaning Israel had applied sufficient pressure to make Hamas more docile.

Olmert could be referring to the destruction of hundreds of underground tunnels Hamas uses to smuggle weapons into Gaza. The recent offensive destroyed or damaged 60-90% of those tunnels (depending on which side you ask), which numbered upwards of a thousand. But, according to the AP's Alfred de Montesquiou, tunnel operators are already fixing the damage and could be back in business within days. As a result of the collective punishment methods Israel utilizes to try to weaken Hamas, goods, not just guns, are in short supply in Gaza. Tunnel operators describe the goods they smuggle as potato chips, cigarettes, baby formula, underwear, and even animals for the zoo.

About weapons smuggling, Montesquiou writes:
While both traffickers insisted they had never considered bringing weapons for Hamas, Abu Bilal, another colleague repairing his own tunnel, said he wouldn't mind doing so. "But frankly, the resistance never asks us to," he said. "I think they've got their own tunnels and don't want to pay us," he said.
What's materializing as the smoke clears is that neither side has achieved its goals- both are right back where they started, politically- but both are claiming victory. Meanwhile, 6,000 Gazans are dead or injured and southern Israel will continue to be bombarded with Hamas' qassam rockets until both Israel and whoever rules Gaza learns to use diplomacy instead of brute force.

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