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Arrest of Hamas Leaders Fuel Tensions Between Palestinians and Israelis

June 29, 2006 at 6:40 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: New developments in the Gaza confrontation, as reported by Steven Erlanger, Jerusalem bureau chief for the New York Times. Jeffrey Brown spoke with him earlier this evening.

JEFFREY BROWN: Steven Erlanger, thanks for joining us. What are your sources saying is behind Israel’s decision to delay a ground offensive?

STEVEN ERLANGER, New York Times: Well, essentially because Egypt asked them to. The Egyptians are still hopeful that they can get this captured soldier released before Israel moves even further into Gaza.

They have been talking to Khaled Mashaal, who is the so-called hard-line Hamas political leader based in Damascus. There’s a sense that it’s Mashaal who ordered this raid into Israel and that he holds the key to the release of this soldier.

So Egypt asked Israel to hold off a bit and see what would happen. And part of Israel’s intention is to show the international community and the rest of the world that it is being patient and that it has no desire to cause unnecessary harm, so another day didn’t seem to matter.

"Israel has changed its attitude"

JEFFREY BROWN: Is there any sense that this behind-the-scenes diplomacy is getting Israel any closer to getting their soldier back?

STEVEN ERLANGER: If it does, I think the Israelis believe it will be in combination with what they've been doing on the ground. There's the whole process of psychological pressure day-to-day that they're hoping will convince the Hamas government and the Hamas military wing that it's in their best interest to let the soldier go rather than face the consequences.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, does that include the arrest of the Hamas officials? How is the Israeli government explaining that?

STEVEN ERLANGER: It certainly does include that arrest. They explain it in two ways: One is it's a clear message to the Hamas government and Gaza, which holds the real keys, that they're vulnerable, that Israel has changed its attitude towards them, and that, if they really value their government, and value their own liberty, and value their power in the Palestinian Authority, they should release the soldier and stop Kassams and stop acts of what Israel calls terrorism.

The second aspect is Israel has decided to charge them because it argues that Hamas, having now openly said it has broken the cease-fire with Israel, and since Hamas is openly involved in the raid against Israel, that the Hamas government has broken the cease-fire and is no longer a normal government and is being considered criminals.

And so that's the legal justification that they're bringing these cases now, but I think the real justification is psy-ops, it's a psychological military effort to convince the people in Gaza to do what Israel wants them to do.

Israel is walking a thin moral line

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, there were air strikes today, apparently on infrastructure sites. What can you tell us about that? And there were also reports that the U.N. was calling on Israel to allow supplies in to avoid a potential crisis because of those strikes.

STEVEN ERLANGER: Well, this is the difficulty, because part of what Israel is doing is putting a lot of pressure on the population of Gaza to try to get them to put pressure on their government, Hamas, to step down a bit.

And one of the ways Israel is doing this is by not allowing money in, but also in the last few days cutting off imports of fuel supplies and everything else. I'm told there are only about 120,000 liters of diesel left in all of Gaza; that's five day's supply.

And the U.N. is very nervous about the cutting of electricity, which means it's difficult to get water, because many people use pumps to get their water. It will have a big affect on sanitation.

So Israel is walking a very narrow moral line here, but they want public pressure to build, and this is one way they're doing it.

The economy is suffering

JEFFREY BROWN: And so is there a sense of what it is like on the ground there? Is there a sense of panic? Is there calm awaiting a further storm?

STEVEN ERLANGER: Well, what it is, it's really hot. And the economy is almost at a standstill anyway, due to the economic siege, if you like, of the Hamas government by the West and by Israel. There is a lot of nervousness, particularly along the northern border and in Rafah.

But, in general, popular opinion still wants something in return for this soldier. I mean, they think that this act by the Hamas military and the Popular Resistance Committees was a legitimate act of defiance, and so I'm not sure the Israeli strategy of getting public opinion to urge the release of the soldier is going to work, but that is their strategy.

A kidnapped soldier was found dead

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, also today the body of an Israeli settler was found, after he'd been kidnapped on the West Bank. What can you tell us about the circumstances of his death? And is that having any impact on what's going on in Gaza?

STEVEN ERLANGER: As far as we know, he was kidnapped, I believe, on Sunday, and the belief is that he was killed very soon afterwards. The Israelis found his body in a shallow grave, and so it's not clear how long he was actually kept alive.

Oddly, I don't think it is having much of an impact on what happened in Gaza. I mean, it simply may add to the Israeli public support for what the Army is doing there, but it hasn't ratcheted up the crisis particularly.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Steven Erlanger of the New York Times, thanks

very much.