Israelis batter Gaza and seize Hamas officials

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 29-Jun-06 | Author: Ian Fisher and Steven Erlanger| Source: International Herald Tribune

Israeli aircraft fired missiles near the town of Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on Thursday.
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip Israel stepped up its confrontation on Wednesday with Palestinian militants over the capture of an Israeli soldier, battering northern Gazan towns with artillery and sending warplanes over the house of the Syrian president, who is influential with the Palestinian leader believed to have ordered the kidnapping.

In the West Bank city of Ramallah early on Thursday, Israeli forces detained eight ministers of the 24-member Hamas-led Cabinet and 20 lawmakers, including Deputy Prime Minister Nasser Shaer and Labor Minister Mohammed Barghouti.

The body of an abducted 18-year-old Israeli settler, Eliahu Asheri, was found early on Thursday near Ramallah. The Popular Resistance Committees, a militant group with ties to Hamas, had said they would kill him if Israel did not halt operations in the Gaza Strip.

As Israeli tanks hunkered down inside southern Gaza at the airport here, after warplanes knocked out half of Gaza's electricity and pounded sonic booms over houses, the crisis seemed to be tipping toward wider violence.

Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz approved an extension of the Israeli incursion into northern Gaza, where Palestinian militants have been firing crude Qassam rockets into Israel. About 9 p.m. Wednesday, after saying they would drop leaflets urging citizens of Beit Hanoun and Beit Lahiya to leave their homes, Israeli artillery batteries began to shell.

On Thursday, an Israeli warplane fired a missile in Gaza City that an Israeli spokeswoman said hit a soccer field near the pro-Hamas Islamic University. Reuters reported that the missile hit inside the university.

Political leaders of Hamas joined the militants to demand the release of Palestinian women and minors from Israeli jails in exchange for the soldier - a condition that the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, vowed would not be considered.

The choice, Israeli officials said, was the soldier's unconditional release or an escalation that could widen the conflict regionally: Haim Ramon, Israel's justice minister, raised the possibility of a strike in Syria to kill Khaled Meshal, the exiled political leader of Hamas there; the men who hold the Israeli soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, 19, are believed to be following his orders.

"We won't hesitate to carry out extreme action to bring Gilad back to his family," Olmert said of the soldier captured in an attack near Gaza on Sunday led by Hamas.

In what the Israelis said was a message to the Syrian president, Bashar Assad, four Israeli four warplanes flew over his residence in Latakia, in northwest Syria, where he was believed to be staying.

Syrian state television said Syrian air-defense systems fired on the planes and forced them to flee.

Meantime, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, condemned Israel's attacks on infrastructure in Gaza, which disabled its only power plant and knocked down three bridges on the north-to-south roads.

In a statement, Abbas said he considered "the aggression that targeted the civilian infrastructures as collective punishment and crimes against humanity."

The crisis also spilled over into a second - and possibly third - kidnapping.

Israeli media carried unconfirmed reports that a 60-year-old Israeli missing for two days had also been abducted.

Two Palestinians, aged 2 and 17, were reported killed Wednesday while playing with an unexploded Israeli shell in the southern town of Khan Yunis. But there were no reported casualties in Israeli airstrikes.

Unlike other Israeli incursions into Gaza, there have been no reported skirmishes between the Israeli military and Palestinian militants, though the Israelis stayed largely out of reach, dug in at the airport.

The airport, Israeli military officials say, will act as a staging ground for an operation that will progressively escalate until Shalit, reported to be wounded, is freed.

For the Israelis, the operation is aimed at deterring Hamas, which now leads the Palestinian government, from carrying out similar attacks in the future. Israeli newspapers carried articles speaking of the attacks on the infrastructure as a way to extract a concrete longer-term cost for the actions of Palestinians' leaders.

For many Palestinians in Gaza, the refusal to back down seemed a collective effort to highlight their own sense of grievance.

The economy has broken down under an embargo of Western aid since Hamas took power in January. The Palestinians contend they remain under siege, even after the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip last year, with their borders often closed and encircled by Israeli warplanes and ships.

And there remains widespread approval among Palestinians for the capture of Shalit and for Hamas' demand for an exchange, given that there are nearly 9,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails.

"There is support for this because I am not safe when I walk on the street," said Mustafa Raghib, the director of Gaza's largest flour mill, forced to shut down for several hours after the electricity was cut. "I don't live a good life. I am not safe in my country.

"Give me a good life, and I will not support actions like this," he said.

The White House called for the immediate release of the kidnapped soldier. At his regular morning news conference, Bush's spokesman, Tony Snow, said that Hamas had been "complicit in perpetrating violence" and that Israel had the right to defend itself.

Snow said the Bush administration was urging Israel to ensure "that innocent civilians are not harmed" and to "avoid the unnecessary destruction of property and infrastructure." But he chose his words with precision, steering clear of questions about whether the Israeli response had been appropriate.

Israeli leaders said Wednesday that they had ordered the military forward after seeing little progress on diplomatic efforts - including by Egypt and France - to end the crisis and free Gilad, who also holds French citizenship.

Amid sonic booms that shattered windows, Israeli military planes hit the three bridges, as Apache helicopters attacked all six of the transformers at the power plant - an attack that Israeli officials said it was necessary to make it harder to transport Shalit to different locations.

"Nobody understands the logic," Rafik Maliha, the plant's manager, said as firefighters worked to keep down smoke that still rose hours after the attacks. "They want to keep people in the dark so kidnappers don't move? What's the relationship?

"If there is no electricity, there is no water," he added. "It is more than collective punishment."

The plant provided some 42 percent of the power to Gaza's 1.3 million residents, and now Gaza is completely dependent on Israel for its power. Maliha, the plant's project manager, said it would take as long as a year to replace the transformers.

On Tuesday, Palestinian negotiators from Fatah, Hamas and other factions rushed to finish a draft of a unified political program, based on a document issued in May by Palestinian prisoners. It contains new language that senior Israeli officials said represented a defeat for Abbas. They said they hoped he would walk away from it because, one official said, "It takes him out of the game" and "further alienates him from Israel." The document now represents, the Israelis say, "The basis for future negotiations with Israel, and for us, this is a total nonstarter."

The Israeli analysis, made by the Foreign Ministry, focuses on new language, inserted in negotiations with Hamas, that insists on the right of return, "without discrimination," for all Palestinian refugees "to their homes and properties from which they were evicted and to compensate them." The Israelis argue that this stronger language gives the lie to any claim that Hamas has recognized the right of Israel to exist, implicitly or otherwise, because such an interpretation of refugee rights would eliminate Israel as a Jewish state by flooding it with Palestinians.

The document has always been silent on the statehood of Israel, but has been interpreted to give it an implicit recognition because it calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as its capital, "on all territories occupied in 1967," presumably with Israel next door.

But a senior official, who has also briefed European diplomats, argued that the failure to mention Israel's right to exist speaks more loudly. "We don't see any implicit recognition of Israel by Hamas," the official said. "The most significant reason is that this right of return takes out the two-state solution."

Israel, the official said, is concerned that the document is being praised by European officials, without having yet been read. The document, Israel says, accepts previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements only in so far as they do not "affect the rights of our people," which Israel says means "cherry-picking" previous agreements.

The draft also calls for a new Legislature of the Palestine Liberation Organization to be organized by the end of this year in a way that favors Hamas, the official argued, and for a "national-unity government" that Hamas will continue to dominate, with Fatah playing a lesser, co-opted role. Abbas also appears to be giving up, in article seven, the right he had insisted upon to be able to call a referendum by presidential decree, without a law passed by the Hamas-dominated Palestinian Legislature, the Israeli official said.