Israel's return to Gaza: multiple motives

The Palestinian-Israeli standoff goes beyond one kidnapped soldier – for both sides.

Israeli troops captured at least 64 Hamas officials in an overnight roundup indented to increase pressure on the Palestinian militants who are still holding an Israeli soldier captive.

Another Israeli hostage, a young settler named Eliahu Asheri, was found dead in the West Bank. Israeli security officials said he was shot in the head.

Late Wednesday, Israeli war planes buzzed the home of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who shelters the Hamas leaders that Israel blames for orchestrating the kidnapping of Cpl. Gilad Shalit. In response, Syrian forces fired on Israeli planes, Syria's state TV reported.

In Israel's first military operation in Gaza since disengagement, being called Operation Summer Rain, thousands of troops, backed by warplanes and tanks, moved into the coastal strip overnight Tuesday. The army knocked out nearly 75 percent of Gaza�s electricity supply, destroyed major highways and water supplies, and struck fields in northern and southern Gaza in a show of force meant to intimidate Palestinian militants. Artillery units also opened fire near Gaza City.

The official goal of the ground and air assault launched in Gaza, say Israeli army officers here, is to free Corporal Shalit.

But the analysis offered by rank-and-file soldiers may be closer to the truth.

"I don't believe at this point we'll be able to save Gilad Shalit, but we have to go in anyway," says Eliraz – conscripted troops can only give their first names.

Yvgeny, from the elite Givati Brigade, nods. "They'll know next time that they can't just go and kidnap our soldiers and expect to get away with it."

Israel's goal in Gaza is to make Palestinians uncomfortable enough to think twice about committing more kidnappings, or in the language floating around the camp here, to teach them a lesson.

On this hot, windy peak overlooking Gaza, where the Israeli army was amassed Wednesday after launching a night invasion of the territory it quit last summer after 38 years of occupation, senior military officials said that they will do everything they can to save Corporal Shalit.

Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant told reporters watching occasional plumes over the horizon that he was sure that Shalit, kidnapped by Palestinian militants early Sunday morning, was alive and being held in Gaza.

To be sure, the escalating conflict is about more than just one kidnapped soldier. After Palestinian groups launched more than 170 homemade rockets on Israel in the course of a month, there has been increased domestic pressure on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to do something to stop the attacks.

Analysts say that unlike former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who had a history of taking an aggressive military stance, Mr. Olmert is considered relatively "untested" as a national leader, making it harder for him to display patience. Mr. Sharon and cabinet members who supported the disengagement plan – Olmert included – said that once Israel was no longer occupying Gaza, it would respond harshly.

Still, some Israeli news commentators worried in the morning papers whether Israel was about to get bogged down in Gaza again. Olmert said in a speech in Jerusalem that the operation would be limited. "We have no intention of recapturing the Gaza Strip. We have no intention of staying there."

On Nizmit Hill, however, where the crash of a Kassam rocket could be heard and felt, soldiers mused that Israel would wind up spending much longer here than it did during the week-long evacuation of settlers from Gaza.

General Galant suggested that from Israel's point of view, the ball is in the Palestinians' court.

"What we see is that the men in Hamas and in the Palestinian Authority are capable of giving us more information, or of influencing the people who are holding him," Galant said of the kidnapped soldier. If Shalit is returned and the Kassam rockets stop, he indicated, the Israeli offensive would end.

In Gaza, the kidnapping is helping to bolster support for Hamas at a time when its military wing has lost support by taking a back seat to Islamic Jihad and the Public Resistance Committee (PRC). Hamas militants had been honoring a calm in attacks on Israel.

"They want to prove that they are resisting Israel, and they want to gain more popularity," said Omar Shaban, a Gaza-based economist.

President Abbas has called on the militants responsible for the kidnapping – a mix of Hamas military wing members and activists in the nonpartisan Popular Resistance Committee – to return the soldier unharmed. But he also condemned the Israeli action Wednesday as collective punishment. There have been two incidents in Gaza recently in which the Israeli army killed innocent bystanders while aiming to assassinate wanted militants.

In Israel, the abduction has resonated more deeply with the public than the weeks-long rocket attacks on the southern city of Sderot. Because everyone in Israel serves in the army, most Israelis can relate to the plight of the abducted soldier.

"There's a saying in the army that you don't leave your wounded on the battlefield. We'll do everything so he'll live. It's the value of human life," says Moran Ohana, who commanded a tank similar to the one from which Shalit was kidnapped.

"There is a feeling that this is going to be a big mess. That the intifada will come back."

And yet, Israelis were skeptical about whether the push into Gaza would succeed in freeing the captive.

"We have a history of being kidnapped, so we know what is going to be the end of him," says Matan Eshel, a former infantry soldier in Lebanon who now works in a Tel Aviv pizzeria. "When they send in commandos, it usually ends up with the terrorist dead, several other soldiers – and the hostage."

On many Israelis' minds are Olmert's upcoming plans for pulling out of West Bank settlements.

"The question to my mind is whether we should be unilaterally withdrawing with Hamas in power, and with the government being unable to offer a convincing response to the shelling of Sderot.

"This is a major test for the Olmert government," says Yossi Klein Halevi, a fellow at the Shalem Center, a Jerusalem research institute. "The first test was Sderot and the government has failed that test," he says.

"What the public wants to see is some new strategic thinking without a clumsy invasion that will leave us many casualties and leave us where we before."

Safwat al-Kahlout in Rafah and wire material contributed to this report.

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