Israel's Gaza balancing act
Israel weighs pressuring Hamas leaders against sparking a humanitarian crisis.
A top United Nations official in Gaza said Sunday that he expects the threat of a humanitarian crisis to subside as Israel allows essential supplies into Gaza – at least for the next four days – while continuing its military offensive to gain the release of a kidnapped soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit.
"People, including me, are very nervous about what will happen if they don't get the soldier back – or even if they get him back – what else they might do to punish the Palestinian people," says Chris Nordahl, the deputy director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.
Israel says it does not aim to punish the Palestinians as a whole, according to an army spokesman, but to turn up the heat on militants and the Hamas-led government.
The result is an Israeli army juggling act: It wants to make life intolerable enough for someone in the Palestinian leadership to yield, but not so intolerable that international censure will come down on Israel for sparking a humanitarian disaster in Gaza.
"We are interested in putting pressure in various ways on terrorists groups which are responsible directly and indirectly for the abduction, and in so doing, to bring about the release of the soldier," says Capt. Jacob Dallal. "We expect the soldier back, and we won't stop until he's returned. We need to send that message and yet try to prevent civilians from being harmed – it's a difficult balance."
Palestinians and foreign observers say the attacks and the cutoff in supplies amount to collective punishment. The UN estimates that as many as 25,000 Palestinians could be displaced from northern Gaza if Israel were to undertake a full-scale offensive.
But Captain Dallal argues that Israel's strikes are aimed at crippling a very specific infrastructure.
"Part of the idea is to ... impair their ability to move the soldier and to impair their ability to shoot Kassam rockets into our territory," he says. "Our strategy is to do things that pressure these terror groups and the Hamas hierarchy, which is essential. We have to back up our words with some action. Unfortunately, the civilian population also ends up being involved. But we're quite happy to say that seven days into this operation, and it is quite an intense one, not one civilian has been killed or seriously injured."
Following Shalit's kidnapping from inside Israel just over a week ago, Israel began a military campaign Wednesday dubbed Operation Summer Rains – almost a tease of a term, since the long months of summer and fall are parched here. One of the army's first strikes was knocking out a power station; the loss has wiped out about 65 percent of Gaza's power, according to the UN. Many neighborhoods are now getting only six to eight hours of power a day. Those who can have been operating on generators, which are dependent on fuel. But most fuel comes in from Israel through the Nahal Oz Crossing.
Israel turned off the tap after the kidnapping, but Sunday decided to let fuel in again: The army said it allowed in half a million liters of diesel fuel, 40,000 liters of benzene, and 150 tons of cooking gas.
The biggest danger of the fuel and electricity shortages, the UN says, is the possibility of worsening water quality if waste treatment plants do not have enough power.
"What is affected is the water supply, because the water pumps work on electricity," says Mr. Nordahl. "The water supply has been very much reduced. Most of the pumps have backup generators, but we didn't have fuel to power them. Until Sunday, everyone, including myself, thought we were heading towards a humanitarian crisis, but that crisis has been averted."
While Karni, the commercial crossing with Israel, has been shut since last week, the Gaza-Egypt border has also been closed since the kidnapping.
"Food, medicines, and other humanitarian supplies are starting to come through Karni, and we hope it will continue," Nordahl says.
Early Sunday, an Israeli helicopter fired a missile into the unoccupied office of Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, ripping a gaping hole through the building. Also Sunday, in another attack, Israeli aircraft struck a school in Gaza City and Hamas facilities in northern Gaza, where a Hamas-affiliated militant was killed.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has been trying to play intermediary between Israel and the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority (PA), decried the attack on Mr. Haniyeh's office as "criminal," and said that it could encumber efforts to free the kidnapped soldier.
Israel's Interior Minister, Roni Bar-On, said the Palestinians "must learn that they have to return the soldier and stop the Kassam rocket attacks." At least one more Kassam – improvised rockets which tend to have poor aim – landed next to an Israeli town in the Negev Desert Sunday.
The electricity and fuel shortages have had a palpable impact on many small business throughout Gaza. Farmers dependent on fuel-run irrigation systems, for example, are concerned about seeing their crops go dry.
"My irrigation system depends on a diesel engine, and I only have enough fuel for one more day," says Hashem Ghadin, who grows cucumbers, potatoes, tomatoes, and peppers on a patch of land in Beit Lahiya, in northern Gaza.
"If I don't get the fuel I need, I'll have to turn the system off and go home, and the whole harvest will die," he says. "It will mean losing $8,000 that I should make this year, and everything that I paid to start my business."
"We could survive with the Israeli shelling of our land," says the father of five, "but we cannot convince the harvest to grow without water."
The situation is similar at the Al-Khouli Bakery in the Rimal neighborhood. Despite being one of Gaza's more affluent addresses, it is getting only about six hours a day, making it tough for baker Adel al-Khouli to put out his usual batch of bread.
"I have a generator to keep us in business," he says, "but without fuel and electricity, we cannot make it work, and we won't be able to make enough bread."
• Wire material and a Gaza correspondent contributed to this report.