Behind Israel's Move into Gaza

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HATEM MOUSSA / AP

Palestinians inspect a bridge destroyed by Israeli army warplanes on a main road in the northern Gaza Strip, near Gaza City Wednesday June 28, 2006

For the first time since Israel evacuated its settlements and army outposts from Gaza last August, the Israeli military is now inside the narrow strip of land.

As part of an operation aimed at freeing an Israeli soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, 19, who was abducted by Palestinian militants during a daring cross-border raid Sunday morning, the air force has blown up three bridges, cutting Gaza's main roads and limiting mobility between the north and south.

It also bombed a power station, leaving most of the 1.3 million Palestinian residents without electricity. The flow of other goods into the territory had already been reduced to a trickle after Israel sealed the borders and drew its navy close to the shores. Throughout Tuesday night, low-flying jets emitted sonic booms, breaking windows, making residents cringe and babies wail.

The Operation is called Summer Rain, and it is, one could argue, negotiation by other means — a threatening demonstration that Israel is ready to strike and do whatever is necessary to recover its soldier. Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres told CNN that the operation was the result of frustrations built up in recent days that left Israel "without a choice."

For the moment, the troops are holding observatory positions just inside the border, on the site of an abandoned airport about a mile from the southern town of Rafah. It is there that military intelligence believes Shalit is being held. Palestinian gunmen had taken up positions throughout Gaza, but as of yet, neither side has initiated a confrontation, suggesting that there are some non-military avenues to resolution.

If Shalit is released, Israeli officials have said repeatedly, the army will pull back. Still, it doesn't look good. Attempts to negotiate Shalit's release, assisted by Egyptian mediators, have been paralyzed by the absence of a clear hierarchy on the other side. Numerous Palestinian leaders, led by President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas' political leader, have been working to secure the soldier's release, but the militants holding Shalit apparently do not answer to them. Israeli officials are saying directions are coming from Damascus, from Hamas' leader in exile Khaled Meshal, who is pushing a much harder line than Haniyeh and his camp. "He is definitely in our sights," Justice Minister Haim Ramon told a local radio station.

What's happened so far has fallen short of the feared all-out offensive in Gaza. But Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert proclaimed that "extreme action" is possible, despite calls from US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to show restraint and give diplomacy more time.In an interview with the BBC, Saeb Erekat, a leading Palestinian political figure, denounced the steps taken thus far, in particular the strike on the power station, as a form of collective punishment that is "adding fuel to the fire." For his part, President Abbas said in a statement Wednesday that "the president considers the aggression that targeted the civilian infrastructures as collective punishment and crimes against humanity."

Talks could still be ongoing, as many undoubtedly are praying for. But Israel is clearly preparing for action if they fail and trying to prevent the militants holding Shalit from moving him to another part of Gaza or outside the territory. On Wednesday, while the sonic booms continued, the Israeli Defense Forces began shelling Northern Gaza — a measure taken, officials said, to halt Qassam rocket fire from the area into Israel — and seemed poised to cross into the territory. The Israeli Air Force also buzzed the summer home of Syria's president, a brazen, none-too-subtle message conveying Israel's feelings about Meshal's ongoing residency in Damascus. Potentially further complicating matters is the fact that a militant group in the West Bank has claimed to have kidnapped an Israeli civilian, a claim not yet verified but being taken very seriously by Israeli security forces — as is the threat that more kidnappings could follow.

One possible scenario is that one night, with the lights out and roads down, there could be an opportunity to stage a commando raid of some sort on a suspected hideout, if one can be located. Still, nothing much is clear right now, aside from the threat looming over Gaza — and the already fragile state of Israeli-Palestinian relations.

With Reporting by Aaron J. Klein/Jerusalem