GAZA STRIP – For the first time since Israel pulled out of the Gaza strip and ended the 38-year occupation, troops are back. After the daily exchanges of Rocket fire and air strikes, gunmen in a joint operation led by Hamas managed to dig a tunnel, climb through to the Israeli side of the Gaza fence and kidnap Cpl. Gilad Shalit, an Israeli tank gunner.
Politically, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert could not take a humiliation like this at the hands of Hamas. The pictures of Cpl. Shalit have been on the front page of every newspaper. The public outcry was so great no one — not even form the Israeli left — dared mention that Israel use the gentle touch attempting to win the release of this soldier.
Troops massed along the Gaza Border 3,000 strong. Under tremendous pressure from the world community to "show restraint," Olmert waited to see if there was a way to talk this corporal out.
But time quickly expired.
I think somewhere around 10:00 p.m., I was in our Gaza office and I got a call from Eli Fastman, our bureau chief. His contacts told him, "It’s D-Day." Whatever was going to come from the anticipated Israeli offensive was coming.
As soon as I hung up the phone with Eli I could hear the wind-like sound of an F-16 over Gaza at high altitude. Within minutes jet engines roared, backed up by the sound of propellers from Israeli drones. The sound of the aircraft would fill the sky then fade away. The music from a wedding across the street stopped and the streets emptied. Hundreds of Hamas gunmen took up positions armed with rifles and RPG’s. They put homemade bombs into the ground and in a futile effort they hid behind sand berms, which they hoped would slow an Israeli advance. The silence between the over flights was eerie — like watching someone in a horror movie walk into the abandoned house. You knew something violent was going to happen. It was just a matter of time.
The first air strikes took out bridges on the main roads that connect the Gaza strip from the North to the South. Gaza city was disconnected from the rest of the strip. Israel said the reason for those strikes was to make it difficult for kidnappers to move the kidnapped corporal around.
Israeli missiles also went into the power plant erupting in a great ball of flames and plunging the Gaza strip into darkness. There is no real military gain from taking out the power plant but it reveals the clear focus of the Israeli strategy: to increase the misery index for all the people in Gaza and therefore put pressure on the Palestinian government to do something about the kidnapped soldier.
Sometime after 1:00 a.m. local time Israeli armor and troops crossed the border into the south of the Gaza Strip. Despite the gunmen we saw in the streets of Northern Gaza, Israeli forces encountered no resistance. Knowing any attack would be suicide, Palestinian gunmen elected to hide and fight another day.
Israeli forces took up position in the inoperable Gaza airport and surrounded the town of Rafah on the Southern border where it is suspected that the corporal is being held. Then they stopped.
If they can avoid it, Israel will choose not to go in to Rafah and fight in the crowded ghetto streets. The last time they picked a fight on tight streets was in the West Bank town of Jenin. The result was significant loss of life on both sides. Palestinians have the ability to set booby traps and take up position with a home field advantage in such an environment.
So it appears now Israel will wait for something from the Palestinians. They will wait for the kidnapers to show themselves. They will wait for the Palestinian government to take some action.
In the meantime they keep flying their jets over Gaza and creating ear splitting sonic booms. The booms are so powerful, a window next to me just shattered. The idea is to rattle nerves and make certain no one in the Gaza strip will be able to forget Israeli forces are there and no one will be able to relax until the corporal is returned.
Palestinians are aware of the strategy and defiantly they mock the intimidation campaign. One woman who works at the hotel I’m staying in sarcastically told me "I’m so scared, I forgot my own name."
Only a small portion of Israeli forces at the ready have entered Gaza. If last night’s action does not produce the soldier, they can take it up a notch and continue to do so until something gives.
Palestinian gunmen are also under pressure. For all their brave speech and parades with weapons on their shoulders, people will expect them to stand up to the Israeli forces. I don’t know what will be the next development, but I can safely assume it will be violent.