A few weeks ago, 19-year-old Gilad Shalit, a corporal in the Israeli Defense Forces, was an individual like the rest of us, with strengths, weaknesses and foibles. Now he has become a symbol. And whatever faint hopes might have existed for a relatively peaceful end to the armed standoff between Israelis and Palestinians have become fainter.
On June 25 militants, reportedly from the military wing of the Hamas movement, emerged from a tunnel dug from Palestinian territory in Gaza to a military post inside Israel, killed two Israeli soldiers and captured Cpl. Shalit. Palestinian reports in the past couple of days indicate that while he had three minor wounds Cpl. Shalit has been treated and is in basically good health.
It is impossible to know which, if any, of the rumors currently extant are true.
The political wing of Hamas won elections in the Palestinian Authority three months ago but has major disagreements with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who heads the rival Fatah movement.
Israel announced Monday that it has instructed its military to “do everything” to free Cpl. Shalit. Over the past week Israel has conducted air raids and armed incursions into the Gaza strip, which it evacuated of Israeli settlers a year ago.
Israel has blown up Gaza’s only power plant, captured more than 60 Hamas officials, including eight Cabinet members, and destroyed the unoccupied offices of the Palestinian interior ministry and prime minister. It flew a military jet over one of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s country homes; Khaled Meshal, Hamas’ top leader, lives in Syria.
Palestinians have continued rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel, and Hamas has vowed to hit Israeli schools if Israeli military attacks continue. On Monday the three groups holding Cpl. Shalit gave Israel 24 hours to start releasing Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails or “bear all the consequences.”
A crisis like this tends to bring the more intransigent forces on each side to the fore and to drown out more moderate or pragmatic elements. There have been demonstrations within Israel against the military actions, but with little impact. On the Palestinian side the bitter rivals Fatah and Hamas are – for the moment – united in condemning Israel.
Despite the fact that both sides have more to lose than to gain in an escalating confrontation, the desire to preserve “face,” to not be seen as backing down in the face of threats from the other side, of not “rewarding violence” by making a deal, operate strongly on both sides.
Despite profound sadness at the unfolding tragedy, this is a conflict the United States would do well to stay out of. The Egyptian and Turkish governments are trying to broker an agreement, without much success so far. The U.S. can only reduce its already low reputation in the area if it appears to intervene too forcefully. Considering the potential for widespread tragedy, it can be frustrating to take a hands-off position, but such prudence is wisdom in this case.