By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 30, 2006
BEIT HANOUN, Gaza Strip, June 29 -- Fatin Shabaat left home here Thursday with her three hip-high children, looking for safety from a slow-moving Israeli military assault launched to free a 19-year-old soldier being held by Palestinian gunmen.
Israeli artillery batteries lobbed shells around this farming community in the Gaza Strip's northeastern corner throughout the day, after leaflets dropped from the sky warned residents to remain clear of Israeli military operations. Shells whistled overhead, slamming into the fields and dunes where Palestinian gunmen regularly fire crude rockets at the Israeli city of Sderot, a white smudge along a ridgeline three miles away.
Although she never received one of the written warnings, Shabaat clutched her children, ages 2, 3 and 4, and headed to her father's home in the town center, far from the dirt paths that have served in the past as routes for Israeli tanks. An Israeli airstrike had already left her without electricity, along with about 700,000 other residents of the strip, and artillery shells were falling close to her back yard.
"This is only going to get worse," said Shabaat, 25, who despite the impending clash favors keeping the Israeli soldier captive until at least some Palestinian prisoners are released from Israeli jails. "We will not get anything otherwise. And they are going to invade anyway. This soldier is just an excuse."
Shabaat's grim prognosis regarding the crisis over the captured Israeli soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, was echoed in the West Bank, where the Israeli military arrested more than 60 officials from the governing Hamas movement in a pre-dawn sweep. The detainees included two dozen members of parliament and nine cabinet ministers, more than a third of the Hamas cabinet.
[Early Friday morning, Israeli military aircraft fired missiles at the Interior Ministry headquarters in Gaza City, setting the building ablaze. An army spokesman said the ministry, headed by Saed Siyam of Hamas, was being used "for the planning and carrying out of terrorist activities." Siyam's office was struck directly.
[Israeli airstrikes also hit several other targets Friday, including the headquarters of a new Interior Ministry militia dominated by Hamas members and a building that military officials said was used by al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the Fatah party's armed wing. Missiles also struck roads in the north and south of the strip, some landing near a key bridge that had already been hit this week. There were no immediate reports of injuries.]
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government holds Hamas responsible for Shalit's capture, which occurred Sunday during an attack on an army post just outside Gaza's southeastern corner that left two soldiers dead. The radical Islamic movement's armed wing was involved in the attack and is one of three groups demanding the release of 421 Palestinian women and minors in Israeli prisons in exchange for information about Shalit's welfare.
Israel has arrested elected members of the Palestinian legislature before, but never as many as it did Thursday.
Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, said the detained Hamas officials would be either charged and brought to trial or released in the days ahead. He said plans to arrest Hamas officials for belonging to what Israel designates a terrorist organization had been in the works since Hamas's armed wing ended a 15-month cease-fire with Israel after the June 9 explosion on a Gaza beach that killed seven members of a Palestinian family.
Regev denied speculation that the Hamas legislators would be offered in exchange for Shalit's freedom. "Hamas's involvement in terrorism is the reason for these arrests, nothing more," he said.
But Palestinian political analysts said they believed the arrests were timed to undermine a rare political agreement reached this week by leaders of the two leading Palestinian political movements, Fatah and Hamas.
The two parties have been at odds since Hamas's electoral victory in January over how to respond to the international economic sanctions that have choked off most of the government's funds. The United States and European Union also designate Hamas a terrorist organization, a classification that led to a freeze of most foreign aid.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who heads the secular Fatah movement, and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas agreed in principle this week to a unified political program that would usher in a national unity government in the weeks ahead and endorse the creation of a future Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, territory occupied by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war.
Since it was founded nearly two decades ago, Hamas has called for an Islamic state across a far larger territory that includes Israel. Abbas and others had hoped the shift in Hamas's position would persuade Israel to revive peace talks, which have been dormant for more than five years.
"I don't think that, at a time ministers are in prison, a national unity government with Fatah can be established," said Ali Jarbawi, a political science professor at Beir Zeit University in the West Bank. "It won't have legitimacy with Palestinian public opinion. What Israel did through these arrests is interfere in a process that would stabilize internal Palestinian relations, thus allowing it to continue to claim that there is no Palestinian partner" for peace talks.
This town, which has been under the arc of Israeli military fire for months, readied itself in small ways Thursday for what many of its 30,000 residents feared was an imminent assault. But Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz later postponed a ground incursion into Beit Hanoun, which had been scheduled to begin Thursday evening, after Egyptian diplomats requested more time to negotiate Shalit's release.
A senior Israeli military official said Peretz did so after signs that Khaled Mashal, Hamas's political leader in exile, could be softening his position. Israeli officials and Egyptian diplomats say Mashal, who lives in the Syrian capital of Damascus, has been the most important voice inside the organization opposing Shalit's release.
"If he would change his mind and come around, he really has a lot of influence," the senior military official said. "We will try to wait as long as we can if we feel pressure is being put on him. We are not in a hurry."
But the official also said the operation here was not only about freeing Shalit but also about "weakening the Hamas government" and ending rocket fire into southern Israel. In that sense, the official said, Shalit's release through diplomacy may not be enough to guarantee "our strategy of making sure they know that there will be a very high price to pay for future kidnappings."
Before the operation was suspended, some residents here decamped to stay with relatives, while others prepared to retreat. Some accused Israel of using the capture of one soldier -- at a time when the Israeli government holds 8,503 Palestinians in prison -- to stage an attack that would do little to free him.
Others fired rockets toward Israel. Two of the missiles traced white contour trails against the blue sky during a brief lull in the Israeli artillery barrage.
"We have a plan to withdraw if the Israelis attack," said Hamada Abdullah Hamada, 31, a sergeant with the Palestinian national forces who was manning a makeshift outpost between the town and the Gaza border.
From the five shipping containers that formed the post, Hamada could see flatbed trucks moving Israeli tanks along the border. The two rockets rose from behind a nearby agricultural school a quarter-mile from Hamada's concrete pillbox, and Israeli guns answered minutes later with steady, thumping fire.
Pointing to the tank movements, Hamada said: "Even before the soldier was kidnapped, the Israelis were doing this. They will come in."
Special correspondent Samuel Sockol in Jerusalem contributed to this report.