Israel launches Gaza offensive

By Dan Baron, JTA

JERUSALEM — A somber-looking Prime Minister Ehud Olmert convened his Cabinet and security chiefs Sunday for an assessment of efforts, so far unsuccessful, to retrieve Cpl. Gilad Shalit, abducted by Hamas and other gunmen.

Despite a massive armored incursion and dozens of airstrikes in Gaza, and a round-up of senior officials from the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority government in the West Bank, there has been no solid information on the whereabouts and condition of Shalit, who was kidnapped last weekend.

Asked if military means alone could be relied upon to secure the 19-year-old’s release, Israel’s chief of staff, Lt. Gen., Dan Halutz, said: “It seems not.”

“We have to take a deep breath. This could take weeks or even months. There is no magic solution,” Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin told the Cabinet.

Israel’s air force destroyed the Palestinian Authority prime minister’s Gaza office. Ismail Haniyeh, a Hamas leader, was not in his Gaza City office when it was attacked by helicopter gunships early Sunday. A separate Israeli airstrike on a Hamas militia headquarters killed a member of the Palestinian terrorist group. A Gaza school founded by the late Hamas spiritual leader, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, was also hit. There were no casualties.

Retrieving Shalit is proving to be a big test for the fledgling government of Olmert and his defense minister, Amir Peretz. For the prime minister, the crisis threatens his promise of a withdrawal from the West Bank that helped get him elected.

While much of Gaza’s civilian infrastructure is in ruins following Israeli airstrikes, the Palestinian casualty rate has so far been low — three dead terrorists.

As of press time Monday, Gazan gunmen holding Shalit hostage had set a July 4 deadline for their ransom demands to be met. Hamas’s armed wing and two other terrorist groups issued the ultimatum but did not say in their statement what would happen to Shalit if it goes unmet.

Security sources say Israel wants to pressure the Palestinian Authority into producing Shalit while avoiding the sort of onslaught that could push his captors to drastic deeds.

But there has been little progress. The Hamas-led government insists it is not responsible for Shalit, yet at the same time publishes the ransom demands of the hostage-takers. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, considered internationally as the future address for rapprochement with Israel, has not convinced Hamas to return the soldier.

Indeed, after an Israeli helicopter gunship fired a missile at the office the prime minister in a show of force early Sunday, Abbas toured the wreckage with the Hamas leader and condemned Israel’s “crimes.”

Even the Egyptian power brokers who rushed to Gaza in a bid to defuse the crisis look likely to call it quits. “The Egyptians are trying,” Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, Israel’s commander of military intelligence, told Olmert and his fellow ministers. “The problem is, they’re mostly talking among themselves.”

With surveys showing most Palestinians are behind them, Shalit’s captors have demanded that Israel free hundreds of Arab security prisoners in exchange for the soldier.

Olmert has refused. “We have no intention of yielding to any form of extortion,” he said.

The prime minister’s stance speaks to a core dilemma among Israelis — how to secure the freedom of their fellow citizens without emboldening the enemy to strike again.

With a young West Bank settler having been abducted and killed by Palestinians last week, and the Shin Bet warning that the tactic could be repeated, many Israelis are urging a return to the country’s traditional policy of not negotiating with terrorists.

The problem is that policy was regularly ignored when it came to major hostage crises that could not be tackled militarily with a strong chance of success.

“Be honest, Mr. Prime Minister: is there a ‘reasonable military option’ at the moment? If the answer is no, then why not start talking with the ones holding Shalit?” wrote Ma’ariv commentator Rafi Mann. “Past experience shows that quite a few hostages who would have rotted for even longer in terrorist captivity have been released in this way.”