It was a familiar drill for 44-year-old Wael Husseini. Just after midnight on Thursday, about 200 Israeli soldiers surrounded his two-story home in Jerusalem's Ram neighborhood, a cluttered district of low-rise residential buildings and dingy storefronts. Husseini, an activist in the Islamic Hamas group and, since elections in January, a member of the Palestinian Parliament, had been arrested eight times over the years. Now, in Israel's bid to leverage the release of its abducted soldier, more than 60 lawmakers and cabinet ministers were being rounded up as bargaining chips. The troops pushed their way into his living room and gave him five minutes to pack a small bag, according to his family. "They were screaming at him, 'get dressed, get dressed'," Hussein's 16-year-old daughter, Ni'ne, told NEWSWEEK hours after his arrest. Though Hamas's top leader, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, eluded soldiers, by the end of the night most of the party's other politicians were in custody.
The arrests are the latest gush in a tide of violence since Sunday, when Palestinians attacked an Israeli Army position, killed two soldiers and dragged 19-year-old Cpl. Gilad Shalit into Palestinian-controlled Gaza. Overnight, soldiers found the body of another missing Israeli, 18-year-old military-academy student Elijah Asheri, who had been grabbed from a hitchhiking post near his settlement in the West Bank last week. The Palestinian assaults have prompted the first large-scale incursion into the Gaza Strip since Israel withdrew from the area a year ago. They also overshadowed a loose agreement initialed this week between Hamas and the more moderate Fatah movement that was intended to heal a bloody rift among Palestinians and allow for the resumption of international aid. Instead, Palestinian divisions appear now to be deeper than ever—not only between parties but within Hamas itself.
One sign of the internal friction is a lingering confusion over who actually ordered Shalit’s abduction. Hamas, which had largely been honoring a ceasefire with Israel, claimed responsibility for the Sunday attack along with two other groups after more than a dozen Palestinian civilians were killed in Israeli bombardments. But Haniyeh, who is from Gaza and has been a central Hamas figure for years, appeared to have been taken by surprise. As prime minister since February, Haniyeh has had to reconcile Hamas's record of suicide attacks with his bid to prevent Palestinian isolation in the world. At one point this week, he voiced a desire to see the soldier returned safely to his family, though his government has taken no formal position (the captors have said they want to trade Shalit for Palestinians jailed by Israel). "What's becoming clear is that Haniyeh doesn't control parts of Hamas," says Shaul Mishal, an Israeli political scientist at Tel Aviv University who recently co-wrote a book about Hamas. "The group has a new generation of youngsters, very radical, who don't have the kind of party loyalty that you see in the older activists."
Scuttling Haniyeh's budding dialogue with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas might have been one of their goals. Haniyeh and Abbas initialed the so-called prisoners' document (drafted by political leaders held in Israeli jails) a day after the abduction. Largely a tract on ways to achieve Palestinian political unity, the 18-point paper effectively nudges Hamas toward a more mainstream vision of Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation. But only slightly. Whereas Hamas envisions a Palestinian state in place of Israel, the document refers to the right of Palestinians to "establish their independent state ... on all territories occupied in 1967," meaning the West Bank and Gaza. But the paper is mum on international demands that Hamas halt all violence and recognize Israel, conditions the United States and Europe have set as the price for a resumption of much-needed financial assistance. "It's certainly not enough to change the American position, but it well may be enough to create new cracks in the European position," said Nicolas Pelham, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group.
Pelham and other experts believe the agreement will remain frozen as long as the standoff with Israel continues over the abducted soldier, Shalit. Next week Israel marks the 30th anniversary of its dramatic hostage rescue in Entebbe . But the intelligence required to pull off a rescue operation in Gaza this time appears to be lacking. "There's a short window for gaining a clean release in a situation like this," says Yossi Alpher, a former security official who now credits bitterlemons.com, an Israeli-Palestinian political Web site. "If you don't succeed in finding the person in a few days, or compelling his abductors to return him, you're looking at something that could drag on for years." The same could be said for the arrested Hamas lawmakers, whose fate also now hangs in the balance. "It's going to be a lonely summer," says Husseini's wife, Alya. And possibly a blistering one.
With additional reporting from Nuha Musleh in Jerusalem