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Last Updated: Monday, 3 July 2006, 11:55 GMT 12:55 UK
Analysis: Israel's wider aims in Gaza
By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website

Israel's operations in Gaza and the West Bank appear to have as their aim not just an increase in pressure to get the release of its captured soldier but the weakening of the Hamas government.

Israeli tank near Gaza
There are signs of disagreement within Israel about tactics

The Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres put it this way in an interview with CNN on Sunday: "We are trying to topple down the policies of this so-called government, which are policies of terror.

"It is a government that was elected properly, but behaves like a terroristic organization. So we didn't disturb the elections, but once we see the way they behave, we cannot consider them a government."

The Israeli Defence Minister, the Labour leader Amir Peretz, far from being a hawk himself, said: "The masquerade ball is over."

In a reference to the detention of eight Hamas cabinet ministers and about 20 other members of the Palestinian parliament, Mr Peretz said: "The suits and ties will not serve as cover to the involvement and support of kidnappings and terror."

To reinforce the message, Israeli planes have bombed the Gaza office of the Hamas prime minister and the minister for security

And adding to the sense that there is a wider agenda here, Israel Radio reported that a senior official in Shin Bet, the internal Israel security service, warned the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on the day of the Corporal Shalit's capture: "If the soldier is not returned in 24 hours, Israel will not allow the Palestinian government to survive."

'Punitive measures'

The crisis brought together a professional humiliation for the Israeli army with a desire by the Israeli government to deal with the constant bombardment of the Israeli town of Sderot, which happens to be Mr Peretz's home town.

In quieter times, the Israelis might have held their forces back, made loud noises and negotiated in secret - but these are not quieter times
The firing of missiles from Gaza is seen by Israelis as symptomatic of Hamas' inability or unwillingness to rein in militants both among its own ranks and in Islamic Jihad.

The two have brought about a powerful incentive for Israel to take punitive measures against Hamas.

Some of those measures, such as the bombing of a power plant in Gaza, have brought international criticism and questions as to whether this attack violated Article 48 of the addition to the Geneva Conventions in 1949:

"In order to ensure respect for and protection of the civilian population and civilian objects, the Parties to the conflict shall at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives and accordingly shall direct their operations only against military objectives."

What will Israel do?

Israel argues that the power station in the circumstance of Gaza was a military target in that it directly aided the captors of their soldier.

All this talk about not speaking to the terrorists is nonsense - in the end, they released Palestinian prisoners with blood on their hands for three dead soldiers and they released Sheikh Ahmed Yassin for two Mossad agents
Esther Wachsman
Mother of Israeli soldier who died in operation to release him

In addition, Israel can argue the case that the original attack on their base outside Gaza on Sunday was a violation of their sovereign territory. Arguments from both sides go even further back.

In any event, the issue now is how far the Israelis will go if its soldier is not freed or is killed.

It has gone into southern Gaza but has held off from the north. It would not hold back if Corporal Shalit was killed.

Negotiating release

It still remains possible that the Egyptian-led effort to negotiate a release might bear fruit. In which case, the Israelis will withdraw and no doubt will release the Hamas officials.

With a deadline set by the groups holding the soldier due to run out early on Tuesday morning, time is getting short.

Israel appeared to amend its refusal to talk over the weekend with reports that the Israeli military was ready to accept the release of some Palestinian prisoners "without blood on their hands".

But that is a long way from the demands for a mass prisoner release made by the Palestinians.

There is precedent for negotiation. Israel has negotiated for the release of its soldiers, even the bodies of its soldiers, before with the argument that it values them above all else.

Esther Wachsman, the mother of an Israeli soldier who was captured by Hamas in 1994 and who died in an attempt to rescue him, has urged such negotiations.

She told the Jerusalem Post: "All this talk about not speaking to the terrorists is nonsense. In the end, they released Palestinian prisoners with blood on their hands for three dead soldiers and they released Sheikh Ahmed Yassin for two Mossad agents."

Sheikh Yassin, the founder and spiritual leader of Hamas, later killed by the Israelis, was freed by Israel in 1997 in exchange for two Israeli agents caught in Jordan.

They had made a failed attempt to kill the Hamas political leader Khaled Meshaal, who now lives in Damascus and who is again being again threatened by Israel.

In quieter times, the Israelis might have held their forces back, made loud noises and negotiated in secret.

But these are not quieter times. Israel feels that it has to reduce the power and effectiveness of Hamas and that this is a good opportunity.


Paul.Reynolds-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk


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