NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Our main focus this hour is on Somalia, a country in the horn of Africa that's been without a government for 15 years now. An Islamic group defeated a U.S.- backed coalition of warlords earlier this month, and a hardliner said to have ties to al-Qaida has taken over the leadership. What we know and what we do not know about the situation in Somalia. But first, to the Middle East, which could be on the brink of another round of warfare.
Israeli forces are poised on the edge of the Gaza Strip, ready to push into Palestinian territory unless militants release an Israeli solder captured over the weekend. At the same time, Palestinian rivals Hamas and Fatah appear to have reached an agreement designed to bring an end to international sanctions. The document implicitly recognizes Israel's right to exist, or - depending on who's talking about it - it doesn't.
Scott Wilson is Jerusalem bureau chief for the Washington Post. He joins us now by phone from Gaza. And Scott, good to talk with you again.
Mr. SCOTT WILSON (Jerusalem Bureau Chief, The Washington Post): Thanks, Neal.
CONAN: Any news about negotiations to free the captured soldier?
Mr. WILSON: There are negotiations going on. That's about all we know. There's some Egyptian diplomats and Egyptian spies as well who have lots of contacts with the different Palestinian militant groups here. They are still talking. Mahmoud Abbas is still talking. But those talks really appear to be going nowhere.
At the same time, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is meeting right now with his senior defense and military officials in what looks like the beginning of what could be an imminent military campaign here in Gaza.
CONAN: As I understand it, the corporal who was captured in this cross-border raid over the weekend also has French and Israeli citizenship, and the French are involved in the negotiations.
Mr. WILSON: That's right. The French are quite involved. The Israeli Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni, yesterday convened about 40 ambassadors from different countries to really make the case that Israel - if it does act militarily in Gaza - would be doing so in what she described as self-defense.
The French have been calling for Cpl. Gilad's immediate release, but it just doesn't seem to be having much effect.
I drove around Gaza today, down south near Rafah, where the attack occurred on Sunday, and you hear quite a bit from regular Palestinians that the militants who are holding Cpl. Shalit should continue to do so until Israelis release Palestinian prisoners. And so there's a lot of public pressure now to hold onto this soldier until there can be some Israeli concession in return.
CONAN: And indeed in the past, previous Israeli governments have, on occasion, negotiated an exchange of prisoners.
Mr. WILSON: That's right. It happened with Hezbollah militia in southern Lebanon. There was a release of some Hezbollah prisoners in exchange for an Israeli soldier and the bodies of three killed Israeli soldiers who had also been kidnapped. But this is something Israel doesn't really like talking about, and has said - unequivocally, in this case - there will be no concessions.
CONAN: At the same time, you're saying that people there in Gaza -people who are likely to suffer if the Israelis do go ahead and move in - they're saying don't make a deal.
Mr. WILSON: That's exactly right. They are, they believe that this was -they see it as part victory, this strike that was pretty sophisticated. They, the attackers went through a very long, nearly a half-mile long tunnel, came up behind the Israeli Army post on the far side. And they're very proud of this, people here in Gaza. And now that they have this soldier, there're more than 8,000 Palestinians in Israeli prisons, and they want to see some of them released.
Yesterday, the militants who are holding this soldier demanded - in exchange for some information about Cpl. Shalit's welfare - the release of women and minors being held in Israeli prisons. There are about 400 of them in total. And Prime Minister Olmert has said that will not happen.
CONAN: At the same time, some say that this has exposed differences between the military wing of Hamas - especially there in Gaza - and the political leadership in Ramallah, and indeed, the Hamas leadership in exile in Damascus.
Mr. WILSON: That's very true. These tensions have been cropping up ever since Hamas won the January parliamentary elections that really put them in power. But, this case is really exposed them more than ever.
The exile leadership - led by Khaled Mashal who is in Damascus, Syria -and the military wing seem to be of the same mind on this issue, which is to not negotiate - to negotiate over this soldier's release rather than releasing him without any concessions from Israel.
The political leadership of Hamas here - who is running the government and facing severe economic sanctions that have really crippled a lot of its activity - are taking a much more moderate line, calling for his safe - some of them - are calling for his safe release, at least calling for his safety. And so they're dealing with the practical matters of governing this place, which is difficult in the best of times.
Mr. WILSON: And so that, those divisions are very severe right now.
CONAN: And especially difficult, obviously, because the cut off of aid from the United States, from Europe as well, after Hamas - a group identified as a terrorist organization - took over the government.
As I understand it, Hamas and Fatah - the major faction in the PLO -they've reached an agreement today designed to bring those sanctions to an end.
Mr. WILSON: That's very true. And it could be quite significant. These talks have been in the works for a couple of weeks, and what it will do in the short term most tangibly is lead to a new national unity government that will most likely not be led by a Hamas official.
That could take weeks or even months to form. But these are designed to get these sanctions lifted. Now, Israeli officials immediately said that this agreement really was not enough to change its position toward the government, and that Hamas has not really come out and said we recognize Israel's right to exist, and we renounce violence. They've made steps toward that, but they have not done enough, at least at this point, to satisfy Israel.
CONAN: Now this is about a documented called The Prisoner's Document. Prisoners in Israeli jails from Hamas and Fatah agreed to this document in an effort to cut down on the intra-Palestinian violence that's occurred ever since the election. And the document basically says we agree to two states: one of them, you know, on the basis of the 1967 borders. Of course, Israelis would have a lot of problems with that. And by saying two states, you implicitly recognize that there are two states - a Palestinian state and the state of Israel.
Hamas legislator Salah al-Bardaweel is quoted by Reuters as saying today, "We said we accept a state in territory occupied in 1967, but we did not say we accepted two states." So whether this is a breakthrough or not remains to be seen.
Mr. WILSON: Exactly. I mean, a lot of these are - feel like parlor games a lot of the time. I mean, practically speaking, yes, this is the first time that Hamas has effectively endorsed a Palestinian state alongside Israel, even though they haven't said it in so many words. As part of this agreement today, they've endorsed what was the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, which explicitly states recognition and peace with Israel in exchange for Israel's withdrawal from all territories occupied in that war.
However, Israel still occupies much of that territory, and so we're really talking about something that - practically speaking - isn't going to happen any time soon. And what I think Palestinians - particularly Hamas - want to see first and foremost is that in these concessions it's made in agreeing to a unity government is an easing of these sanctions, and, perhaps, getting life in some of these places a little bit back to normal.
CONAN: In the meantime, the Hamas-led government that's there now is going to have to deal probably with this military crisis that could develop in the next 24 hours or so.
Mr. WILSON: That's very true, and this is something that Israeli officials said today about concentrating on this document today, which is we have a - there's a crisis right now that could blow up, really, in hours. And that the focus really should have been on the soldier and his release.
Part of this document, though, the timing could very well be seen as the Hamas political leadership here in Gaza's message to the militants that, you know, we are still in control. We are still the political power here, and we're going to make these concessions whether you like it or not. And so, in some ways, this is internal politics within Hamas playing out, trying to get their own house in order. But this military crisis is not going away.
CONAN: And there's no sign on the Israeli side that this agreement is any way changing their determination to go in.
Mr. WILSON: None whatsoever.
CONAN: And we're also hearing today news from the same group holding the soldier, in fact - Corporal Shalit - that they seized a Jewish settler who was hitchhiking on the West Bank. Has there been confirmation of that?
Mr. WILSON: Yeah, that's right. There's confirmation that there's a Jewish settler from a settlement in the northern West Bank called Itamar who has been missing since Sunday. The Israeli military has been operating in certain areas of the West Bank searching for him. They have not confirmed that he's being held by this group, which is known as the Popular Resistance Committees.
But that group has claimed that they are holding him. They haven't shown anybody that they're holding him. They show no evidence they're holding him. But this is just another crisis in what is this brewing confrontation between these two sides.
CONAN: And these Popular Resistance Committees, they are linked with the military wing of Hamas?
Mr. WILSON: What they are is they're a smaller, radical armed group. Many of its members are former members of the Hamas military wing. There're also some former members of Fatah's military wing - sort of disenchanted with the direction that those groups were taking, and so they broke off. They've been responsible for a lot of this rocket fire into southern Israel that has also been a big problem in recent weeks.
And so they're just a more radical version of some of these other groups. Of course, the Hamas military wing has also broken what had been 16 months of a truce with Israel in recent weeks because of the exchanges of rocket fire and artillery fire that have been taking place in and around Gaza.
CONAN: And one final question: a week ago, we talked with Israelis about their concerns about the future, and several of them talked about their fears of another round of violence and soon - it looks at if, regrettably, that may happen sooner rather than later. Mr. Olmert's government is not popular. How is this being received?
Mr. WILSON: Well, Mr. Olmert government faces a problem that the previous one - under Ariel Sharon - did not have, which is that its credibility on matters of security was suspect before the elections, and has become increasing suspect since the elections. There's two ways of looking at this: either they're going to be more aggressive this time around to prove that they do have the metal that the previous government had in the Defense Ministry position. And that government was Shaul Mofaz, who was a former chief of staff of the Israeli military.
CONAN: Mm hmm.
Mr. WILSON: This defense minister is Amir Peretz, who has never had much military experience at all. So it's difficult to say, but right now many Israelis are transfixed by this soldier's situation, and I think, largely, are supporting some kind of action.
CONAN: Scott Wilson, thanks very much.
Mr. WILSON: Thank you.
CONAN: Scott Wilson, Jerusalem bureau chief for The Washington Post with us on the phone. And, after the break, Somalia. I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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