In Israel, hints of a deal - but when?

"For six years now we have seen Hezbollah quietly strengthening before our eyes," says David Giladi, secretary of the village of Shtula on Israel's north-western border. He points to the Hezbollah military outpost on the hill just in front of the village.

Standing 500 metres from the location of the last kidnapping, Giladi is watching Israeli jets flying overhead into Lebanon. "Hours after the last Israeli soldier left Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah built that outpost," he explains. "For the past three years they have freely shelled any target along the fence. Israeli officers and Hezbollah militants were near enough to see each other's eyeballs, but the confrontation was delayed for the sake of political agreements. Now everything has blown up in our face." Distracted by the Palestinian intifada in the south, he says, the Israeli government preferred to ignore the provocations of Hezbollah. Now it is paying the price.

"Katyushas are no novelty"

Three days later, in the Israeli border village of Dovev, Sami Vaaqnin is watching two Russian Katyusha rockets fall on his peach grove. Again, Israeli jets are roaring overhead, but Vaaqnin is calm. "Katyushas are not a novelty here," he says. "I saw the PLO firing them for years before Hezbollah started. When the attacks were only on us in the north, nobody did anything. But an attack on Haifa is a different story. The best I can expect from this operation is for Hezbollah to be forced away from the border."

A large area of northern Israel, home to 700,000 people, and including the major cities of Tiberias, Nazareth and Haifa, is paralysed. Thousands have fled to safe havens further to the south, but for those who have stayed normal life is impossible. Banks, shops, offices and ATMs are closed; public transport is non-existent. In the first week of the current action, more than a thousand missiles, from Katyushas to heavy rockets, were launched from Lebanon.

But Israelis remain optimistic. The media and the majority of the Israeli public support the attempt to force Hezbollah to withdraw behind the Litani River, 18 kilometres north of the border. For the moment, there is also broad support for the government's handling of the crisis.

Prisoner exchanges

Most people feel they have seen this before. On 10 and 12 July, the Hamas leader, Khaled Meshaal, and Hasan Nasrallah, general secretary of Hezbollah, held separate press conferences emphasising that captured Nasrallah, general secretary of Hezbollah, held separate press conferences emphasising that captured Israeli soldiers would not be returned without a prisoner exchange, a controversial subject in Israeli politics.

In the last swap with Hezbollah in 2004, 400 Palestinian prisoners were released in return for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers captured in 2000, and an Israeli reserve colonel, Elchanan Tenenboim, captured in dubious circumstances in Belgium. The deal proved unpopular: Tenenboim, a businessman involved in deals in Lebanon, is regarded in Israel as a criminal who dragged the country into a dangerous compromise. With this in mind, Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said after the first abduction in Gaza that they would not release any prisoners, arguing that release would lead to further abductions.

Simultaneously, however, Israel gave assurances to Egyptian mediators that it was ready to release Palestinian prisoners - as long as Gilad Shalit was released first. Soon afterwards, the head of the Israeli General Security Service, Yuval Diskin, met the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, in Amman to emphasise that if there were to be a swap, the prisoners would be handed over only to Abbas, not Hamas. Similarly, Israeli officials are hinting at the possibility of striking a deal with the Lebanese government rather than Hezbollah. Political and military observers in Israel are convinced a deal will eventually take place. But for now, the issue of the abducted soldiers is overshadowed by the scale of the military operation and Israeli hopes of a shift in the balance of power in southern Lebanon.

Amon Regular reports for Haaretz

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