Gaza Crisis Escalates, and New Questions Arise

The Israeli operation to free an abducted soldier has grown to include the arrest of Hamas cabinet members. That has led to many questions, such as what will happen to the officials. Melissa Block talks with Gil Hoffman, political reporter for the Jerusalem Post, and Daoud Kuttab, director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al Quds University, and a columnist for the Jordan Times and The Jerusalem Post.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

For two perspectives on the crisis in the Middle East, we're joined by Gil Hoffman and Daoud Kuttab. Mr. Hoffman is a correspondent with the Jerusalem Post. He's in Jerusalem. Mr. Kuttab is director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al Quds University in Ramallah and he's in Amman, Jordan. Welcome to you both.

Mr. DAOUD KUTTAB (Al Quds University, Ramallah, Palestine): Thank you.

Mr. GIL HOFFMAN (Jerusalem Post): Thank you.

BLOCK: I'd like to ask you both how you interpret the actions by Israel, both the military attacks and also the arrests of dozens of Hamas officials. Gil Hoffman, let's start with you. Has this gone way beyond pressure for the release of this Israeli soldier who's being held hostage?

Mr. HOFFMAN: Well, the Israeli government decided that they had to take steps in order to prevent the hundreds of rocket attacks that have been fired upon Israel, as well as to bring home the soldier that was kidnapped when Palestinian terrorists infiltrated Israel, going in a tunnel under the fence that borders the Gaza Strip. So they've decided to engage in operations that are limited in time and scope in order to take care of these situations, in order to allow for there to be a better future for both the Israeli and the Palestinian people.

NORRS: And Daoud Kuttab, how do you view what's going on right now?

Mr. KUTTAB: Well, it's a crime of war, because collective punishment is not accepted by international standards. But I think it shows the fallibility of unilateral action. The Israelis went out of Gaza by themselves without any kind of agreement, without any kind of coordination. They are refusing to negotiate with the Palestinians. We have had a moderate president for almost two years now that Israel has refused to negotiate with.

So they think because they are powerful that they can do anything they want and they want to withdraw without coordinating, without negotiating with the other side. And I think this kind of thing shows that there is a weakness even when you're as powerful as the Israelis are.

NORRIS: You mentioned a moderate president, but you also now have a government that is led by Hamas. Doesn't that factor into this in a key way?

Mr. KUTTAB: It does factor in and I think unfortunately under the noise of the kidnapping or the arrest of one Israeli soldier, people forgot that Hamas and Fatah signed a very strategic document that indirectly recognizes the State of Israel and accepts the borders of the Palestinian state to be in the ‘67 borders.

This is a huge political turnaround for an Islamic group that has always refused to do that, so there is movement in the direction of moderation on the Palestinian side, but unless negotiations happen, unilateral action will not produce the kind of peace that we all want.

NORRIS: And Gil Hoffman, on the Israeli side, is any of that recognized as moves toward moderation or is it just the contrary?

Mr. HOFFMAN: That document that was signed is a total nonstarter because it calls for the continued struggle by the Palestinians against the state of Israel and that's something that, keeping those options of violence open is not something that's going to bring peace.

NORRIS: It seems that there have been some mixed messages on what exactly is going to happen with these Hamas officials who've been arrested now. Are they going to be, in fact, tried or are they really just bargaining chips to try to gain the release of Gilad Shalit. Gil Hoffman, what do you think?

Mr. HOFFMAN: Well, what the Israeli government said when they arrested them is that they would be tried for being members of a terrorist organization, for an organization that's committed to the destruction of the state of Israel and that they're not intending to be used as bargaining chips. If they were, if Israel would be saying, we'll release these 60 people if you release this one, 20-year-old kid, then I think the kid would be home by now. But Israel isn't saying that.

NORRIS: Daoud Kuttab, what do you think?

Mr. KUTTAB: Nice PR, but nobody believes that. This arrest took place a few days after an Israeli official said we should do exactly that. We should arrest Palestinians and that, I mean they have been in power through elections that were monitored by the international community. Jimmy Carter monitored the elections. They ran on a list called the list for reform and change and they resigned from Hamas when they became official. So they are not members of any terrorist organization, they are arrested as part of a corrective punishment, which is illegal against, according to international treaty.

The problem is Israel is so powerful. The only thing that they cannot do by themselves is get the Palestinians to agree to give them peace. And peace comes when you sit down and talk to your enemies. And this is where we're stuck.

BLOCK: Daoud Kuttab does they Israeli action weaken Hamas, do you think? Or would it, could it backfire? Will it actually strengthen Hamas?

Mr. KUTTAB: I'm sure what has happened is strengthened Hamas because the only reason that Hamas signed this very important prisoners' agreement is that they didn't want to show themselves to be weak. People close to them maybe carried out this attack against the Israelis. They feel that they have proved that they are still in a resistance mode, that they want the end of occupation, and their arrests or the arrests of their ministers and members of the parliament will only strengthen them in the eyes of the people.

BLOCK: Explain how that's so. How's that possible?

Mr. KUTTAB: Well, the Palestinian population has an existential fight for liberty, for freedom, for having their own state and the party that is seen as in the forefront of this struggle for freedom is always respected by the population at large. By arresting these civilians, the Israelis have actually said, this is a group that's really giving us a hard time and we just want to put them in jail. In the eyes of the public, these are heroes.

BLOCK: Daoud Kuttab, can't we assume that the groups that captured the Israeli corporal, even if they may not bear the name of Hamas, are sanctioned by Hamas and that likely this action was ordered by Hamas, whether it's Hamas within Gaza or Hamas in Syria?

Mr. KUTTAB: It's possible that Hamas, the military arm of Hamas, had something to do with this arrest. For a Palestinian group to arrest an Israeli soldier, by the eyes of the Palestinians and by the eyes of the international community, there's nothing that is illegal with that.

BLOCK: Gil Hoffman, when Daoud Kuttab talks about the Israeli soldier being arrested, I assume in Israel there would be an, a completely different interpretation of what happened there.

Mr. HOFFMAN: Absolutely, the young man was kidnapped. The infiltrators came in and they shot an RPG at the tank that he was stationed in and they killed two of his colleagues and they kidnapped him.

This morning I had the opportunity to pay a condolence call to the family of one of the two soldiers who had been killed and I saw how this young man who had been killed had such a bright future. He was an artist. He was someone that believed in peace between Israelis and Palestinians and he was surprised by these Palestinians infiltrating at 5:15 in the morning and coming up into sovereign Israeli territory and shooting. And you know, this is something that no country in the world would allow to happen.

BLOCK: Gil Hoffman and Daoud Kuttab, thanks very much to you both.

Mr. KUTTAB: Thank you.

Mr. HOFFMAN: You're welcome. Thank you.

BLOCK: Gil Hoffman with the Jerusalem Post and Daoud Kuttab, who's Director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al Quds University in Ramallah.

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