GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Israeli forces rounded up Palestinian Cabinet ministers and lawmakers from the Islamic Hamas, increasing pressure on the Islamic militants to release a captured Israeli soldier, and witnesses said tanks moved into northern Gaza, widening Israel’s largest military operation in the year since Israel pulled out of the seaside territory.
Adding to the tension, a Palestinian militant group said it executed an 18-year-old Jewish settler kidnapped in the
West Bank. Palestinian security officials said they believed the body of Eliahu Asheri had been found in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
Palestinian security officials said Israeli forces detained the Palestinian deputy prime minister, Nasser Shaer, and three other Cabinet ministers, as well as four lawmakers in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Two others were arrested in the town of Jenin, they said, and Israeli media reported a roundup of Hamas lawmakers in Jerusalem and other locations.
The military refused to comment. Israel blames Hamas for the attack Sunday in which two soldiers were killed and a third captured when militants tunneled under the border and attacked an army post, setting off the invasion.
Before daybreak Thursday, witnesses said Israeli tanks and bulldozers moved into northern Gaza, stopping about 200 yards inside Palestinian territory across from the Jebaliya refugee camp. No clashes were reported. However, the miltiary denied its forces had moved into northern Gaza.
Despite the size of the Israeli operation, with large troop movements, artillery barrages and many airstrikes over two days, no one was hurt.
Israel held the Palestinian government headed by the Islamic Hamas responsible for the fate of the soldier, also blaming the Hamas leadership in exile in
An Israeli Cabinet minister said the Syria-based Hamas leader, Khaled Mashaal, was a target for assassination. In a bold warning to the country that shelters him, Israeli warplanes buzzed the seaside home of Syrian President Bashar Assad in the port of Latakia.
Syria confirmed Israeli warplanes entered its airspace, but claimed its air defenses forced the Israeli aircraft to flee.
Israel’s concern goes beyond the rescue of the soldier and the negative precedent abducting soldiers would set. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s government is alarmed by the firing of homemade rockets at Israeli communities around Gaza and support for Hamas in the Arab world, especially from Syria.
Earlier, witnesses reported heavy shelling around Gaza’s long-closed airport, and Israeli missiles hit two empty Hamas training camps, a rocket-building factory and several roads.
Palestinians filled up on basic supplies after warplanes knocked out electricity, raising the specter of a humanitarian crisis. The Hamas-led government’s information ministry warned of “epidemics and health disasters” because of damaged water pipes to central Gaza and the lack of power to pump water.
In Rafah, Nivine Abu Shbeke, a 23-year-old mother of three, hoarded bags of flour, boxes of vegetables and other supplies. “We’re worried about how long the food will last,” she said. “The children devour everything.”
Dozens of Palestinian militants — armed with automatic weapons and grenades — took up positions, bracing for attack.
Olmert threatened harsher action to free the soldier, though he said there was no plan to reoccupy Gaza. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas deplored the incursion as a “crime against humanity.”
Abbas and Egyptian dignitaries tried to persuade Assad to use his influence with Mashaal to free the soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit. Assad agreed, but without results, said a senior Abbas aide. Israel refused to negotiate with the militants and rejected their demand — freeing Palestinian prisoners — outright.
The Popular Resistance Committees in Gaza said they had executed Asheri, kidnapped in the West Bank. Palestinian security officials said the body had been found, and Israeli security sources said the youth had apparently been killed. the PRC had said it would execute the hostage if Israel did not halt its invasion of Gaza.
Also, militants said they kidnapped another Israeli, and police said they had a missing person report about a 62-year-old Israeli from the central Israeli city of Rishon Lezion.
European Union on Wednesday urged both Israel and the Palestinians to “step back from the brink” and, echoing a statement from Secretary of State
Condoleezza Rice, to give diplomacy a chance.
The White House kept up its pressure on Hamas, saying the Palestinian government must “stop all acts of violence and terror.” But the U.S. also urged Israel to show restraint.
Kofi Annan urged restraint in a phone call to Olmert, saying he had spoken with Assad and Abbas and asked them to do everything possible to release the soldier. Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa called on the U.S. to assume its role as “honest broker” and to make the Palestinian-Israeli conflict its top priority in the Middle East.
Gaza’s economy was already in the doldrums before the Israeli assault, a result of five years of Israeli-Palestinian violence and an international aid boycott that followed Hamas’ parliamentary election victory in January. The Israeli assault threatened to turn a bad situation into a disaster — underscoring the extent to which hopes have been dashed following the optimism that accompanied Israel’s pullout.
Palestinian plans for high-rise apartments, sports complexes and industrial parks in lands evacuated by Israel have given way to despair, with rising poverty, increasingly violent relations with Israel and a looming threat of civil war.