PALESTINIAN Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh charged yesterday that Israel's offensive in the Gaza Strip is aimed at overturning his government. It's not clear that's the case -- the incursion seems mainly intended to recover a soldier held hostage by Palestinian militants. But if it is, Israel would be entirely justified.
When Cpl. Gilad Shalit was abducted by the military wing of Mr. Haniyeh's Hamas movement last weekend, his administration faced a choice. It could behave like a civilized government -- and work to free the hostage -- or align itself with a terrorist operation. It chose the latter. Hamas government officials endorsed the militants' demand that Israel release Palestinian prisoners it has legally arrested in exchange for a soldier who was attacked while guarding Israeli territory. Hamas justified this position by citing the terrorist movement Hezbollah, which has extracted prisoners from Israel in exchange for hostages, as well as governments that exchange POWs in wartime.
Fair enough. But if Hamas wants to be equated with Hezbollah or define itself as at war with Israel, then Israel has every right to try to destroy the Islamic movement's military capacity, to capture its leaders (it has arrested more than 60 since Wednesday, including eight cabinet ministers) and to topple its government. Isn't that what happens in war?
As it is, Israel's Gaza incursion has been reluctant, slow, carefully calibrated -- and as of yesterday, casualty-free. In addition to the arrests, Israel has disrupted power supplies for slightly more than a tenth of Gaza's population, occupied an abandoned airport, rained shells down on empty fields and bombed the Hamas-controlled interior ministry while it was empty. Yesterday it again postponed a larger operation aimed at stopping the launching of rockets at Israel from northern Gaza in order to allow more time for mediation by Egypt. Meanwhile, the rocket firings continued -- another act of war that Hamas has encouraged, if not sponsored.
The restraint reflects recognition by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that Israel stands only to lose if the Palestinian Authority is destroyed by force. Cpl. Shalit probably can be saved only by a Palestinian political decision, and Israeli forces will have trouble retiring from Gaza and stopping further rocket launchings and abductions, unless they can reach a truce with Hamas. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has been trying to draw Hamas's political wing into an alliance with his secular Fatah movement, could still play a role in brokering such an accord. But he needs more help than he is getting from Egypt, other Arab states and the United Nations. Instead of fulminating about supposed Israeli war crimes, these actors ought to be
demanding that Hamas -- and its sponsors in Damascus and Tehran -- stop their own acts of terrorism and war.