'Creative Solutions' Possible, Israeli Official Says

Israel's current mission in Gaza has two goals, says Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev: to win the release of an Israeli soldier held hostage in Southern Gaza, and to stop rocket attacks from northern Gaza. A prisoner exchange is not an option, the spokesman said — but "creative solutions" are still possible. NPR's Robert Siegel talks with Regev.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Now to Mark Regev, spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, who joins us from Israel. Welcome to the program, Mr. Regev.

Mr. MARK REGEV (Spokesman, Israeli Foreign Ministry): Thank you.

SIEGEL: We've just heard reports about Israeli tanks, armored bulldozers entering the town of Beit Lahiya, in Northern Gaza. Can you explain Israeli reasoning here? How is doing that going to lead, either to the release of Corporal Gilad Shalit, or to the end of rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel?

Mr. REGEV: Well, the first thing that has to be said, is this is something that we really didn't want to do. We were, in many ways, forced to do what we're doing today, by the continued aggression by the Palestinians, the continued firing of rockets, and of course, the kidnapping, Sunday, a week ago, of one of our service people.

SIEGEL: But how does this reintroduction of troops into Gaza, lead, in your view of things, to, say, the release of Corporal Shalit?

Mr. REGEV: Well, there are two military operations going on as we speak. There's on limited incursion in the South Gaza near the Rafah area, the area where Corporal Shalit was taken hostage and we believe he's still there. In the Northern Gaza strip, what started in earnest today, is a response to the continued rocketing of Israeli cities.

SIEGEL: But when you say a response to that, is this a tactical move that would seize the positions from which the rockets have been fired, or is it a tit-for-a-tat attack against the Palestinians because they've been attacking you?

Mr. REGEV: No, there's one definite strategic goal, and that is to halt their ability to shoot at us, rockets, and trying to prevent them from operating there.

SIEGEL: Last week, Israel hit Gaza's only power plant, and a lot of homes, businesses, institutions in Gaza were without power or sewage, and some still are. Why shouldn't one look at that and see it as collective punishment for civilians, as opposed to a narrow tactical move to achieve either the release of Corporate Shalit or to stop rockets from being fired into Israel, out of Gaza?

Mr. REGEV: That was part of the operation in the south. When the corporal was taken hostage, we hit infrastructure in the south of Gaza, around the Rafah area, to prevent moving him around.

SIEGEL: Even though that might mean depriving a great many people, who have nothing whatever to do with it, with infrastructure and with electricity or sewage?

Mr. REGEV: That's true, but you have to know Gaza's been - unfortunately its been a war zone for too long. Much too long. And I think every public hospital, every school - I think they've all got private generators. And there was concern in the first few days that there wouldn't be enough gasoline and diesel for the generators. But, we've made sure, over the last few days that there is enough diesel there, and so all those generators are running.

It's a difficult situation, I make no bones of that - but we're doing our best to make sure the innocent population doesn't suffer from the combat.

SIEGEL: The father of Corporal Shalit, Norm Shalit today said that he thinks the government of Israel ought to be willing to consider a prisoner swap to win his son's freedom. In the past Israel has traded large numbers of prisoners for Israeli soldiers, and sometimes for the remains of Israeli soldiers. Why not keep the idea of a prisoner swap on the table?

Mr. REGEV: Though the idea of a swap sounds appealing and it can be a short term fix, but it's really a longer term problem. Because, if you give into hostage takers, you're just going to have more and more people taking hostage further down the line, with more and more outrageous demands.

SIEGEL: But you're the diplomats, you know better that I that there could be a negotiation whereby Corporate Shalit is “unconditionally released,” and then has then been demanded most recently by Hamas, woman Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, and men who've served very, very long sentences already, are remarkably, by coincidence, then released.

Mr. REGEV: There is a possibility for creative solutions, but creative solutions that he is unconditionally released. And if that happens, of course, that will allow us to stop the operation in the south, and that could also create positive momentum, which would allow our solution to the kanzom(ph) problem, and allow us to redeploy in the north.

SIEGEL: Mark Regev, thank you very much for talking with us.

MR. REGEV: My pleasure.

SIEGEL: That is Mark Regev, spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

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