Israel's Gaza balancing act
Israel weighs pressuring Hamas leaders against sparking a humanitarian crisis.
A top United Nations official in Gaza said Sunday that he expects the threat of a humanitarian crisis to subside as Israel allows essential supplies into Gaza – at least for the next four days – while continuing its military offensive to gain the release of a kidnapped soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit.Skip to next paragraph
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"People, including me, are very nervous about what will happen if they don't get the soldier back – or even if they get him back – what else they might do to punish the Palestinian people," says Chris Nordahl, the deputy director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.
Israel says it does not aim to punish the Palestinians as a whole, according to an army spokesman, but to turn up the heat on militants and the Hamas-led government.
The result is an Israeli army juggling act: It wants to make life intolerable enough for someone in the Palestinian leadership to yield, but not so intolerable that international censure will come down on Israel for sparking a humanitarian disaster in Gaza.
"We are interested in putting pressure in various ways on terrorists groups which are responsible directly and indirectly for the abduction, and in so doing, to bring about the release of the soldier," says Capt. Jacob Dallal. "We expect the soldier back, and we won't stop until he's returned. We need to send that message and yet try to prevent civilians from being harmed – it's a difficult balance."
Palestinians and foreign observers say the attacks and the cutoff in supplies amount to collective punishment. The UN estimates that as many as 25,000 Palestinians could be displaced from northern Gaza if Israel were to undertake a full-scale offensive.
But Captain Dallal argues that Israel's strikes are aimed at crippling a very specific infrastructure.
"Part of the idea is to ... impair their ability to move the soldier and to impair their ability to shoot Kassam rockets into our territory," he says. "Our strategy is to do things that pressure these terror groups and the Hamas hierarchy, which is essential. We have to back up our words with some action. Unfortunately, the civilian population also ends up being involved. But we're quite happy to say that seven days into this operation, and it is quite an intense one, not one civilian has been killed or seriously injured."
Following Shalit's kidnapping from inside Israel just over a week ago, Israel began a military campaign Wednesday dubbed Operation Summer Rains – almost a tease of a term, since the long months of summer and fall are parched here. One of the army's first strikes was knocking out a power station; the loss has wiped out about 65 percent of Gaza's power, according to the UN. Many neighborhoods are now getting only six to eight hours of power a day. Those who can have been operating on generators, which are dependent on fuel. But most fuel comes in from Israel through the Nahal Oz Crossing.
Israel turned off the tap after the kidnapping, but Sunday decided to let fuel in again: The army said it allowed in half a million liters of diesel fuel, 40,000 liters of benzene, and 150 tons of cooking gas.