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Israeli Military Rolls into Southern Gaza Strip

Israeli soldiers wait at a staging area outside the Gaza Strip on June 27, 2006 in Mefalsim, Israel. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has prepared a military operation in retaliation for the Sunday kidnapping of an Israeli soldier by Palestinian militants.
Uriel Sinai
Getty Images
Israeli soldiers wait at a staging area outside the Gaza Strip on June 27, 2006 in Mefalsim, Israel. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has prepared a military operation in retaliation for the Sunday kidnapping of an Israeli soldier by Palestinian militants.

Israeli forces have rolled into the Southern Gaza strip and have launched airstrikes on at least two bridges as Israel presses for the release of a captured Israel soldier. Israeli helicopters also attacked a Palestinian power plant, causing a power outage throughout Gaza City.

Meanwhile, rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas on Tuesday said they had agreed, on paper, on a common political program.

The document, drafted by prisoners in Israeli jails, paves the way for a possible power-sharing arrangement and aims to end violent clashes that have killed two dozen people in the last few months. But not all in Hamas signed off on the document. And some analysts say that Tuesday's move highlights deep internal divisions within Hamas, problems that have become more apparent as the crisis over the captured Israeli soldier unfolds.

The so-called Prisoners Document calls for the creation of a Palestinian state, alongside Israel, within borders that existed before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. It also asserts the "right of return" of Palestinian refugees to land which is now part of Israel proper.

But leaders on the ground in Gaza have less-lofty, more-immediate goals: to end the running battles between Fatah and Hamas gunmen on Gaza streets.

"We hope this document provides the base for an end to all tensions and internal conflicts," says Samir Musharawi, a Fatah leader in Gaza, who was a chief negotiator with Hamas.

Musharawi says he hopes the agreement will lead to a "national unity" government, genuine power-sharing and an easing of international sanctions.

But neither side appears convinced that it will.

Hamas leader Khalid Abu Layla says he doesn't think the agreement will end inter-Palestinian fighting. Fatah officials say that Hamas signing off on the document inches the militant Islamists toward recognizing the Jewish state's right to exist. Abu Layla says that's nonsense.

"Our principles and statements are clear," Abu Layla says. "We will never recognize Israel."

In the complex, turbulent chess match of current Palestinian politics, many say that Tuesday's "agreement" simply highlights the growing division within Hamas. A more radical exile leadership based in Syria and led by Khaleed Meeshal, said Tuesday that there is no deal -- yet.

"We hope within the next few days we will reach agreement on a joint agenda, but not today," Hamas official Moussa Abu Marzouk told reporters in Damascus.

Many analysts think that Khaleed Meeshal approved the deadly weekend attack on an Israeli border post. They say it was aimed, in part, at sabotaging any Hamas-Fatah agreement that might lead to a resumption of peace talks with Israel.

Analyst Jihhad Hamed leads the Independent Center for Strategic Studies in Gaza. He says that this weekend's attack showed the exile leadership flexing its muscle and commitment to a militarist program.

Fatah lawmaker Nabil Abu Roh-Dana, says that the splits within Hamas make it hard, at times, to tell just who is in charge of the group.

"That could be one of the obstacles that we are all facing: Us, and the Israelis and the world," Abu Roh-Dana explains.

Hamas' election win in January catapulted the terrorist militant group to the political leadership of the Palestinian Authority. That quick rise, analysts say, was bound to create splits.

Kais Abdul Karim, an independent lawmaker with ties to Fatah, says that Hamas leaders were under intense pressure from their militant base to respond to the recent civilian deaths from Israeli airstrikes.

" Ever since their success in the elections, they called for self-restraint for the first time in their history, so there is this internal tension," Abdul Karim says.

But Hamas spokesman Ghazi Hamed says that talk about divisions within Hamas is a "a big lie."

Khalid Abu Layla, the Gaza Hamas leader, concedes that there are splits, but he insists they are like those in any large movement.

”Our disagreements are like those within the Israeli leadership on big issues," Abu Layla says. "It's the same inside Hamas, like on this weekend's military operation: There were different points of view about it, but still we are one movement."

For Israel, the prisoners' document agreement signed Tuesday was is irrelevant. Israel's main concern now is finding its missing soldier.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.