Israel last night threatened to assassinate Palestinian Prime Minister
Ismael Haniyeh if Hamas militants did not release a captured Israeli soldier
The unprecedented warning was delivered to Palestinian President Mahmoud
Abbas in a letter as Israel debated a deal offered by Hamas to free Corporal
It came as Israeli military officials readied a second invasion force for a
huge offensive into Gaza.
Hamas's Gaza-based political leaders, including Mr Haniyeh, had already gone
But last night's direct threat to kill Mr Haniyeh, a democratically elected
head of state, sharply raised the stakes.
The bid to free Corporal Shalit was brokered by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak,
who last night warned Hamas it faced severe consequences if it did not curb
its "extreme stance" and described the growing conflict as a lightning
rod for Palestinian vengeance.
Jerusalem has made no official comment, but Egyptian state media said Israel
had found the offer unacceptable. Israel has not spelt out the terms demanded
by Hamas, but earlier this week it refused to buy into talk of a prisoner swap.
Thousands of Hamas supporters protested in Gaza City late on Thursday over
the arrest by Israeli forces of up to 32 Hamas MPs on the West Bank that day.
A Hamas spokesman said the group would never recognise Israel, in spite of
a deal its leaders signed this week offering implicit recognition of the Jewish
state in return for easing an economic blockade.
Israeli fighter jets bombed 20 targets in Gaza, including the Interior Ministry,
which it said had been used by militants to stage meetings, while artillery
hit the northern strip with 500 shells in the 24 hours until yesterday morning.
Jewish settler Eliyahu Asheri, who was murdered by militants this week, was
buried on Thursday as leaders of the Popular Resistance Committees pledged to
seize more hostages in the West Bank. No further word has emerged about another
suspected Jewish hostage, Noach Moskowitz, who Israeli police said was found
dead hours after Mr Asheri's remains were found.
Much of Gaza, including two main hospitals, was without power and running water
as a UN aid chief warned that the 1.4 million residents of the strip were three
days away from a humanitarian crisis.
"They are heading for the abyss unless they get electricity and fuel restored,"
said emergency relief co-ordinator Jan Egeland, who urged militants to free
Corporal Shalit and stop firing rockets into Israel.
Residents complain that sonic booms caused by Israeli jets traumatise children
and that shelling confines families to their homes.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has vowed the military will do all it can
to avoid civilian deaths if a full-scale assault is launched.
Mr Olmert said the decision to invade northern Gaza had already been delayed
to allow Mr Mubarak's negotiations to continue.
The arrested Hamas legislators have been sent to security prisons and many
will stand trial on terrorism offences. The detentions have hurt Hamas's already
limited ability to govern and are likely to force a regime change.
Israel claims it has intelligence about the area where Corporal Shalit is held,
but has been unable to pinpoint the exact location. Mr Olmert said the military
would leave the strip if he was unconditionally and safely returned.
Egypt and the neighbouring Arab states of Jordan and Lebanon fear a war between
Israel and the Palestinians could lead to uprisings within their own borders,
which house many Palestinian refugees.
Israel's Appalling Bombing in Gaza
Starving in the Dark
By VIRGINIA TILLEY
On the excuse of rescuing one kidnapped soldier, Israeli is now bombing the
Gaza Strip and is poised to re-invade. It has also arrested a third of the Palestinian
parliament, wrecking even its fragile illusion of capacity and reducing the
already-empty vessel of the Palestinian Authority into broken shards.
In the shambles, Palestinians may be observing one bitter pill of compensation:
vicious angling by Fatah to reclaim control of Palestinian national politics
and its rivalry with Hamas are now rendered obsolete. Even the dogged international
community cannot maintain its dogged pretense that the PA is actually capable
of any governance at all. The demise of the disastrous Oslo model, Israel's
device to ensure its final dismemberment of Palestinian land and its fatal cooptation
of the Palestinian national movement, may finally be at hand. Perhaps Palestinian
unity again has a chance.
But no one knows what will replace the PA. It is therefore not surprising that
this transformed diplomatic landscape is absorbing the principal attention of
an anxious international community.
Nevertheless, politics should not be the greatest international concern. For
over in Gaza, one appalling act must now eclipse all thoughts of "road
maps" or "mutual gestures": on Wednesday, Israeli war planes
repeatedly bombed and utterly demolished Gaza's only power plant. About 700,000
of Gaza's 1.3 million people now have no electricity, and word is that power
cannot be restored for six months.
It is not the immediate human conditions created by this strike that are monumental.
Those conditions are, of course, bad enough. No lights, no refrigerators, no
fans through the suffocating Gaza summer heat. No going outside for air, due
to ongoing bombing and Israel's impending military assault. In the hot darkness,
massive explosions shake the cities, close and far, while repeated sonic booms
are doubtless wreaking the havoc they have wrought before: smashing windows,
sending children screaming into the arms of terrified adults, old people collapsing
with heart failure, pregnant women collapsing with spontaneous abortions. Mass
terror, despair, desperate hoarding of food and water. And no radios, television,
cell phones, or laptops (for the few who have them), and so no way to get news
of how long this nightmare might go on.
But this time, the situation is worse than that. As food in the refrigerators
spoils, the only remaining food is grains. Most people cook with gas, but with
the borders sealed, soon there will be no gas. When family-kitchen propane tanks
run out, there will be no cooking. No cooked lentils or beans, no humus, no
bread the staples Palestinian foods, the only food for the poor. (And
there is no firewood or coal in dry, overcrowded Gaza.)
And yet, even all this misery is overshadowed by a grimmer fact: no water.
Gaza's public water supply is pumped by electricity. The taps, too, are dry.
No sewage system. And again, word is that the electricity is out for at least
The Gaza aquifer is already contaminated with sea water and sewage, due to
over-pumping (partly by those now-abandoned Israeli settlements) and the grossly
inadequate sewage system. To be drinkable, well water is purified through machinery
run by electricity. Otherwise, the brackish water must at least be boiled before
it can be consumed, but this requires electricity or gas. And people will soon
Drinking unpurified water means sickness, even cholera. If cholera breaks out,
it will spread like wildfire in a population so densely packed and lacking fuel
or water for sanitation. And the hospitals and clinics aren't functioning, either,
because there is no electricity.
Finally, people can't leave. None of the neighboring countries have resources
to absorb a million desperate and impoverished refugees: logistically and politically,
the flood would entirely destabilize Egypt, for example. But Palestinians in
Gaza can't seek sanctuary with their relatives in the West Bank, either, because
they can't get out of Gaza to get there. They can't even go over the border
into Egypt and around through Jordan, because Israel will no longer allow people
with Gaza identification cards to enter the West Bank. In any case, a cordon
of Palestinian police are blocking people from trying to scramble over the Egyptian
border--and war refugees have tried, through a hole blown open by militants,
clutching packages and children.
In short, over a million civilians are now trapped, hunkered in their homes
listening to Israeli shells, while facing the awful prospect, within days or
weeks, of having to give toxic water to their children that may consign them
to quick but agonizing deaths.
One woman near the Rafah border, taking care of her nephews, spoke to BBC:
"If I am frightened in front of them I think they will die of fear."
If the international community does nothing, her children may soon die anyway.
The astonishing scale of this humanitarian situation is indeed matched only
by the deafening drizzle of international reaction. "Of course it is understandable
that [the Israelis] would want to go after those who kidnapped their soldier,"
says Kofi Anan (while the Palestinian population cowers in the dark listening
to thundering explosions demolish their society), "but it has to be done
in such a way that civilian populations are not made to suffer." Even as
Israel bombs smash Gaza's roadways, the G-8 stands up on its hind-legs to intone,
"We call on Israel to exercise utmost restraint in the current crisis."
How about the Russians, now angling for position in the new "Great Game"
of the Middle East? "The right and duty of the government of Israel to
defend the lives and security of its citizens are beyond doubt," says Russia's
foreign ministry, as though poor Corporal Shalit warrants any of this mayhem,
"But this should not be done at the cost of many lives and the lives of
many Palestinian civilians, by massive military strikes with heavy consequences
for the civilian population."
And what says noble Europe, proud font of human rights conventions, architects
of the misión civilizatrice? "The EU remains deeply concerned,"
mumbles the mighty defenders of humanitarian law, "about the worsening
security and humanitarian developments." Seemingly soggy phrases like "deeply
concerned" are diplomatic code for "We are seriously unhappy."
But under these circumstances, "remains deeply concerned" suggests
that this staggering crime is just one more sobering moment in the failed "road
Diplomatic bubbles of unreality in the Middle East are the norm rather than
the exception, but at some point the international community must face the very
unwelcome fact that it needs to change gear. A country that claims kinship among
the western democracies of Europe is behaving like a murderous rogue regime,
using any excuse to reduce over a million people to utter human misery and even
mass death. Plastering Corporal Shalit's face over this policy is no more convincing
that South African newspapers emblazoning the picture of one poor murdered white
doctor over their coverage of the 1976 Soweto uprising.
Israel has done many things argued to be war crimes: mass house demolitions,
closing whole cities for weeks, indefinite "preventative" detentions,
massive land confiscation, the razing of thousands of square miles of Palestinian
olive groves and agriculture, systematic physical and mental torture of prisoners,
extrajudicial killings, aerial bombardment of civilian areas, collective punishment
of every description in defiance of the Geneva Conventions--not to mention the
general humiliation and ruin of the indigenous people under its military control.
But destroying the only power source for a trapped and defenseless civilian
population is an unprecedented step toward barbarity. It reeks, ironically,
of the Warsaw Ghetto. As we flutter our hands about tectonic political change,
we must take pause: in the eyes of history, what is happening in Gaza may come
to eclipse them all.
Dr. Virginia Tilley is a professor of political science,
currently working in South Africa. She can be reached at email@example.com.