Israel's mixed messages in Gaza

Prime Minister Olmert rejected a cease-fire offer, but some Israeli officials take a softer line.

Israeli leaders refused the Palestinian prime minister's weekend offer for a cease-fire to end the crisis in Gaza. They argue the terms for calling off the military campaign are clear: release the Israeli soldier kidnapped two weeks ago, and stop lobbing Kassam rockets over the border.

Publicly, Israel indicates that it is in no hurry to back away from the conflict, which grows deadlier. Palestinian hospital officials say the Israeli offensive has killed 51 Palestinians so far, including about 20 civilians.

But this weekend, Israeli officials appeared to break ranks; one official suggested that it might release Palestinian prisoners as part of an Egyptian-brokered deal.

The mixed messages, say analysts, are the product of a deep uncertainty about the goals of the operation. Is the goal primarily to get the captured Israeli soldier returned home alive – or is the aim to undermine Hamas, the Palestinian party in power?

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's stance – "we don't negotiate with terrorists" – has not faltered for days. But on Friday, Israeli Public Security Minister Avi Dichter suggested the possibility of the deal to free Cpl. Gilad Shalit, who was snatched by Palestinian militants in a raid in Israel proper two weeks ago.

Prime Minister Olmert was quick to distance himself from the views of Mr. Dichter – respected in Israel as the former head of the Shin Bet secret intelligence agency – issuing a statement saying that Dichter's views were "his alone" and not those of the cabinet.

Since then, Dichter has backpedaled slightly, saying that his views were taken out of context.

At a Cabinet meeting Sunday, Olmert dismissed international criticism that the army has used excessive force. "We're talking about a war that will continue for a long time and it is complicated," Olmert was quoted as saying by meeting participants. "This is a war for which we cannot set down a timetable and we can't say how long it will continue."

The Cabinet ministers expressed unanimous support for Olmert's refusal to negotiate with the militants, his rejection of the truce offer, and his decision to continue the Gaza offensive, the participants told Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity.

In Gaza, the Palestinian premier in the Hamas-led government, Ismail Haniyeh, said Israel should release all the members of the Palestinian cabinet and parliament who have been arrested since the crisis began. Only then, Mr. Haniyeh said, would it be possible to negotiate over the release of Corporal Shalit.

"It's a bit like the North Koreans shooting their missile and saying, now let's have a cease-fire," says Mark Regev, the Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman. "We'd be more than happy to pull back and a have a cease-fire, and we'd be ready to do that if we got him [Shalit] back tomorrow. Until then, should we negotiate how many Kassams they are allowed to shoot at us every day?"

To some observers, Israel's way of dealing with the crisis shows how differently it approaches conflicts that take place on what it still views as its turf – including the West Bank and Gaza – versus how it deals with conflicts in neighboring countries.

Moshe Lissak, a sociologist at Hebrew University who specializes in military affairs, compares Israel's trade of hundreds of prisoners two years ago, which won the release of an Israeli civilian captive in Lebanon and the remains of three soldiers. Lebanon was seen as a military battleground out of Israel's reach.

But Gaza, once treated as if it were part of Israel's manifest destiny, is still seen as a place where Israel can act with military solutions rather than political ones.

"In the past there were negotiations when the prisoner was far away, when there wasn't any military option whatsoever," Professor Lissak says. If Israel doesn't exercise this "military option" and it turns out that Shalit was in reach, Lissak says, there is a fear it would greatly tarnish the army's image.

"If after 24 hours, everyone in the world will see that Gilad Shalit was just a 10-minute walk from the Israeli army, they will be very embarrassed and they don't want that. But I prefer to be embarrassed than to bury another soldier, and I think most of the public would agree with me," he says.

Indeed, the sense that perhaps Israel should negotiate to secure Shalit's release has been creeping into the public consciousness. The soldier's father, Noam Shalit, has been somewhat critical of Olmert's policy, asking that the nation's deterrence policy not be built up at their son's expense.

In an editorial in the Maariv newspaper Sunday, writer Yael Paz-Melamed suggested Israel would lose its moral compass if it didn't put a priority on freeing its soldier.

"The Israeli ethos sanctifies human life, and the lives of soldiers even more so," she wrote. "This is an order of priorities that cannot be challenged, and we hope that it will never be. All Israeli parents who send their children to the army believe that the army and the state will do everything, but everything, to ensure their son's or daughter's welfare."

Given the ongoing Egyptian involvement in trying to forge a breakthrough in the violent standoff, which both sides in the conflict have increasingly begun to refer to as a war, some here speculate that there already is some kind of backchannel negotiating process being held far from the public eye.

But even so, it might not move rapidly, in part because Israeli officials are not convinced that Haniyeh would be able to deliver on a promise to return Shalit or stop the rocket fire. It is believed that Hamas leaders outside – primarily in Damascus – are the ones in position to rein in Palestinian militants.

In the meantime, aside from criticism from neighboring Muslim countries and the United Nations, the US and other Western allies have been reticent to interject, speaking only to the need to avoid civilian casualties and avoid a worsening in humanitarian conditions.

And so, until and unless the politicians break through, the Israeli army is continuing to work to undermine the Palestinian Authority's infrastructure under Hamas, in the hope that it will have two outcomes: damage Hamas's popularity and damage militants' abilities to deliver rockets or other weapons.

To that point, Gaza Division Commander Brig. Gen. Aviv Kochavi was quoted by Israel's daily Yedioth Ahronoth Sunday saying that the goal was to "create professional chaos among the Palestinians," to enter parts of Gaza each day and leave, raiding but not occupying. The IDF did return calls for comment on this strategy.

"I'm not sure that there's a very clear idea within the army of how to behave," says Lissak, the Israeli military expert. "It's impossible from the military point-of-view to destroy Hamas and solve the problem, so instead they're going for semi-solutions."

In Gaza City Sunday, hundreds joined a funeral for a mother and two children killed Saturday. The body of 6-year-old Rawan Hajaj was carried on a stretcher, her body covered with a flag of the Islamic Jihad militant group. Israeli military officials said they were not responsible for those deaths.

Late Saturday, the UN blamed Israel for widespread human rights violations. It said the operations "have seen innocent civilians, including children, killed, brought increased misery to hundreds of thousands of people...."

"Anybody who calls this operation disproportionate has no clue about the facts on the ground. We have been attacked and bombarded for months and weeks," Cabinet minister Yitzhak Herzog said Sunday. "With all due respect to all those who criticize us, if anything of this nature would have happened in their homeland, they would have acted much worse."

Wire material contributed to this report.

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