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Israel Attacks Gaza After Soldier Captured

June 28, 2006 at 6:25 PM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: Steve Erlanger, welcome. Thanks for being with us.

What are Israeli officials you talked to telling you about how they actually think this operation will secure the Israeli soldier’s release?

STEVEN ERLANGER, New York Times: Well, that’s their prime goal, but some of them I think aren’t necessarily optimistic that’s going to happen. The operation has a secondary goal, which is to punish the Hamas government sufficiently that this sort of thing isn’t going to happen again.

And it also wants to, as Prime Minister Olmert said, destroy the infrastructure of terrorism, which in part means re-invading parts of Gaza and arresting some people. So I think all this has a way to go.

MARGARET WARNER: Are they concerned that this operation could actually put the soldier’s life more at risk, or do they think that’s — if that happens, that happens?

STEVEN ERLANGER: It is a big concern. Their efforts so far to kind of ratchet up the pressure slowly, trying to tell the Palestinians this is what can happen, please deliver him and we’ll go away. But I don’t think there’s a lot of optimism that the Palestinians will deliver him, and so there are plans being laid for a much larger incursion.

MARGARET WARNER: So give us an idea. You said this could continue quite some time. How much time do you think they’ll give this phase? And if this doesn’t work, then what do you think is the likely next military step, when you say a bigger incursion?

STEVEN ERLANGER: Well, I think they’re going to give it another day or two. It’s hard to know. Israeli troops have taken up positions in southern Gaza, where they believe the corporal is being held, but they’re also making preparations with shelling now of northern Gaza to move into northern Gaza, where many of these Kassam rockets have been fired into Israel.

I think part of what they want to do is to occupy some of the land in the north to stop the Kassam fire at the same time. So there are lots of different objectives, and I think some deep political decisions haven’t yet been taken about how far to take this.

But, as you know, militaries plan for everything, and there are plans for a full occupation of Gaza, too, though no one wants to do that.

Prisoner exchange

STEVEN ERLANGER: Well, Israel has done it in the past in different circumstances, but Prime Minister Olmert made it very clear from the beginning, which maybe is now a mistake, that there would be no prisoner exchanges.

You see, because at first the people holding the corporal said, "If you release these prisoners, we'll give you information about him," and Olmert said he wasn't going to bargain like that. Now, the political leadership of Hamas has kind of supported those views by saying a prisoner exchange is the way to go.

But I think Olmert's for now on the record as saying that's not what he wants to do, so I think that's out for now.

MARGARET WARNER: Is the political leadership of Hamas doing anything else to try to settle this behind the scenes? I mean, are they putting pressure on the militants or have they now made common cause with the militants' hard line?

STEVEN ERLANGER: It's a very good question, because to some degree they're boxed in. I mean, what always happens in the Middle East is everyone goes in saying, "We're not going to let the extremists push us to extremes," and then they seem to let that happen.

What this is showing is, I think, a significant split in the Hamas leadership between those inside, who are trying to run this government, and those outside, like Khaled Mashaal, who is in Damascus, who everyone believes actually ordered this raid, who gives orders to the military wing of Hamas, which is not, apparently, in the control of the political leadership in the territories.

So Hamas itself is split. The political leadership would like to get this resolved, but it doesn't want to give up its belief in resistance and its affiliation with the militants. It really is stuck here.


MARGARET WARNER: We heard today that Israeli warplanes, in fact, buzzed the summer residence of the Syrian president, and I think that the Israeli justice minister also threatened Khaled Mashaal.

I mean, one, does Israel think that's really where this can be resolved? And, two, do you think further military actions against Syria are possible?

STEVEN ERLANGER: For the first question, I think Israel does believe that Mashaal holds the key. They also belief that Mashaal is not very interested in turning that key.

But Bashar Assad, whose house they buzzed, is hosting Khaled Mashaal, who lives in Damascus, and it's believed that Assad has influence over Mashaal. And Assad, whose reputation has been quite shaky, may see it in his interest to help the Americans along this way, so that's part of the theory.

As to the second question, I don't think the Israelis want to get into a battle with the Syrians, but they are certainly saying that those who order terrorist acts against Israel -- and they consider this a terrorist act into Israel proper -- their lives are at risk.

So I think, you know, they're being very clear that Khaled Mashaal's life is at risk. They tried to kill him in 1997 and failed, and maybe they're going to try again.

MARGARET WARNER: So are there any behind-the-scenes efforts that you know of that might possibly resolve this peacefully?

STEVEN ERLANGER: Yes. I mean, in the sense that there is diplomacy, the Egyptians are trying to help. Corporal Shalit is also a French citizen, as well as an Israeli one, and the French generally are in good order with the Palestinians, and the French are trying to help, too.

The problem is this group of militants isn't really much reached by diplomacy, and they don't seem to be listening to the Hamas political leadership, either. And it is also should be said that so far that their action, the militant's action, the kidnapping of this soldier and the demand that a prisoner exchange happen, is very popular with the people of Gaza, and Hamas has its ear to the ground.

I think giving in too easily would be politically damaging to Hamas, at least in the eyes of Hamas.

MARGARET WARNER: Steven Erlanger of the New York Times, thank you.