Punishing Gazans for kidnap achieves nothing

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 June, 2006, 12:00am

Israel's no-nonsense military reaction to the kidnapping by Palestinian militants of an Israeli soldier and the killing of two others sends the wrong signal at a time when delicate negotiations are the only way ahead. By threatening to assassinate extremist leaders and bombing essential infrastructure such as electricity supplies and bridges in the Gaza Strip, the Israeli government has revealed the contradictory nature of its plans for peace with Palestinians.

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has rightly called the bombardment 'collective punishment and a crime against humanity'. Palestinians, suffering because of an Israeli and western freeze on economic and political relations over the election of the anti-Israel Hamas government, are being made to pay even more for the actions of a few criminals.

Israelis have a right to be indignant - their dismantling of 21 Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip last year and promise to pull back from some in the West Bank has resulted only in the stalling of the peace process. Hamas has refused to recognise Israel's right to exist and insisted on maintaining its armed struggle, so progress has been stymied.

In recent weeks, militants have increased their attacks. The one from the Gaza Strip on an army base on Sunday was the most daring: gunmen tunnelled into Israel and opened fire, killing two soldiers, before snatching the young corporal and disappearing. Israelis have also had to endure frequent rocket attacks on their territory from the Gaza Strip. Hamas, declared a terrorist group by Israel and western governments, has not denounced the incidents. Mr Abbas, whose Fatah political party has been sidelined by Palestinians, has been critical, but is powerless to act.

Until Sunday, though, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert seemed intent on a peaceful solution, albeit to a large extent a unilateral one. He had spoken of separate Israeli and Palestinian states, as envisaged in the west's road map for peace, and said that, in the absence of a viable negotiating partner, the border between the two would be determined by Israel. Questions such as the status of Jerusalem, claimed by Israelis and Palestinians, and the return of Palestinians displaced by Israel's founding in 1948 remain unresolved.

The kidnapping has jeopardised plans for peace. If the militants fail to safely return the soldier - all nine previously kidnapped have been killed - Israel has threatened 'extreme steps'. An agreement by Palestinian factions on Tuesday on a landmark proposal that recognises Israel's right to exist was brushed aside by Israeli leaders as 'an internal matter'.

Palestinians from all political factions must do their utmost to free the soldier. But Israel has to curtail its actions and return to diplomacy. Flexing its military muscle against innocent Palestinians is guaranteed to result only in a renewed escalation of the conflict.