Israel’s military offensive in Gaza could jeopardise the life of an Israeli soldier held by Palestinian militants, a senior Hamas official said today.
Moussa Abu Marzouk, the deputy of Hamas political leader Khaled Mashaal, spoke hours after Israeli jets blasted a Gaza power station, knocking out electricity in most of the territory, and Israeli tanks and thousands of troops took up positions near the town of Rafah.
Israel said the offensive, its first offensive in Gaza since it withdrew from the coastal strip in September, was designed to force the release of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, whom Hamas-linked militants kidnapped on Sunday in a raid on an Israeli military camp near the Gaza border.
“Gaza is a small area,” Abu Marzouk said in an interview.
“Cleansing the area (by the Israeli army) would certainly affect the life of the prisoner soldier. He is among the resistance people.”
Abu Marzouk said he believed the militants want to keep the soldier alive to trade him for Palestinians detained by Israel.
“For sure, he’s in hands that will protect him and treat him well. Our morals and our religion dictate that we do this to every prisoner,” Abu Marzouk said.
In Beirut today, another Hamas official said Israel’s incursion would not change the group’s demand for a prisoner exchange involving the Israeli soldier.
If Israelis do not negotiate a prisoner swap, Palestinians militants will conclude “that they should capture more soldiers so that the Israelis will speak to them … the message for the resistance is to kill soldiers, even if they have the opportunity to capture them,” Hamas’ representative in Lebanon, Osama Hamdan, said.
Hamdan warned of serious consequences if Israel carried out a threat to kill Mashaal, the Hamas leader who lives in Damascus, Syria. Israel believes Mashaal ordered the Sunday raid, and its Justice Minister Haim Ramon has said Mashaal is a target for assassination.
Hamdan repeated Hamas denials that Mashaal ordered the attack, and said Israel should think twice about assassinating him.
“They have to think thoroughly about the consequences (of killing Mashaal), which could be bigger than they imagine,” Hamdan said.
Israel tried to kill Mashaal with poison in Jordan in 1997, but botched the operation and was forced to make humiliating concessions to secure the release of two Mossad agents. As Mashaal lay seriously ill in hospital, Jordan’s King Hussein forced Israel to provide the antidote and release the imprisoned Hamas spiritual leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, in return for the Israeli agents.
Hamdan referred to the 1997 event to point out that there was a precedent for Israel exchanging prisoners involving Hamas, an organisation that Israel regards as terrorist and refuses to deal with.
“Israel deals with the principle of exchange even with the Hamas movement,” Hamdan said.
Hamdan said Hamas would insist on swapping the Israeli corporal for Palestinian detainees. Israel is said to hold about 8,000 Palestinians in its prisons.
“Our position does not change: We have said there is a national interest to achieve through discussing a mechanism to win the release of prisoners in the occupation jails in return for the soldier,” he said.
In Jordan, political analyst Labib Kamhawi said he did not think the Israeli incursion would force Hamas to change its policies.
Since it took over the Palestinian government earlier this year, Hamas has come under heavy international and domestic pressure to recognise Israel and renounce violence, but it has refused.
“The military retaliation will not solve the problem and will not change Hamas’ policies toward the recognition of Israel or carrying out other attacks,” Kamhawi said.
Kamhawi said he did not think the Hamas leadership ordered its guerrillas to attack the camp and kidnap the Israeli soldier.
Referring to the long-stalled peace negotiations, Kamhawi said: “The stubbornness of the Israelis created frustration among the Palestinian fighters, which led them to carry out that attack.”