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Israel Detains Hamas Officials; Jets Buzz Syria Leader’s Home

Times Staff Writers

Israel’s military intensified its push for the release of an Israeli soldier today, detaining at least two dozen Palestinian lawmakers and Cabinet members with the ruling Hamas movement.

Military officials also confirmed that four Israeli warplanes circled early Wednesday over a palace of Syrian President Bashar Assad near the coastal city of Latakia. Assad, who reportedly was at home, is seen as a key source of support for Hamas hard-liners believed to be behind the soldier’s kidnapping.

The latest Israeli actions, including airstrikes on Gaza Strip weapons warehouses and roads, were part of the first offensive of its kind since Israel unilaterally pulled out of the coastal territory more than nine months ago.

The attacks came after the Hamas-led Palestinian government joined calls by Palestinian militants holding Cpl. Gilad Shalit to arrange a prisoner swap -- an apparent closing of ranks in the face of the Israeli military offensive.

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Israel has ruled out such an exchange and demanded the unconditional release of Shalit, a 19-year-old tank gunner seized Sunday during a cross-border raid inside Israel by members of Hamas’ military wing and two other armed groups.

Meanwhile, Palestinian militants said they had killed a Jewish settler from the West Bank whom they previously claimed to have abducted, and local media reported that a separate armed group said it had kidnapped another Israeli civilian.

Among the Hamas members reportedly taken into custody in the West Bank and East Jerusalem were five Cabinet members. At least 20 parliament members were arrested, along with some municipal leaders, Hamas officials said. Palestinian Deputy Prime Minister Nasser Shaer was initially named as a detainee, but his office later said that report was incorrect.

The Israeli military had no immediate comment, saying only that an arrest operation was underway.

Israeli troops and tanks held positions at Gaza’s disused international airport Wednesday, consolidating a military foothold in the southern area of the coastal strip after launching the opening round of a land and air offensive that officials said was meant to free the captured soldier.

Wire services reported that Israeli tanks had moved into northern Gaza early today, but the military denied that.

The Israeli incursion into Gaza focused in its initial stages on hammering an already weakened infrastructure -- knocking out three bridges and a key power installation.

More than half of Gaza’s 1.3 million residents were left without electricity, and many without water, a punishing turn of events in a territory where summer’s swelter is beginning to take hold. It was unclear how long it would take to restore the utilities.

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Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called the strikes against civilian installations “collective punishment against the Palestinian people and a crime against humanity.”

Human rights groups warned that the infrastructure damage would aggravate hardship in Gaza, which has been battered by international economic sanctions and severe Israeli restrictions on the movement of people and goods since Hamas took power after winning parliamentary elections early this year.

Israeli officials and commentators were describing the Israeli advance into Gaza as a phased operation -- limited for now but with the potential to grow.

The army launched artillery rounds from land and warships into northern Gaza near Gaza City late Wednesday and warned residents to leave the area because of possible stepped-up military action.

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In his first public comments since Israeli tanks and troops moved into the coastal territory early Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said his government was prepared to take “extreme steps” to secure Shalit’s release, and he again ruled out negotiations with the soldier’s captors.

If Shalit is not released, Olmert said, “we will be forced to continue the military activity. We have no intention of reoccupying Gaza. We also have no intention of remaining there. We have one central goal and that is to return Gilad home.”

Haim Ramon, the Israeli justice minister, warned that Israel could target Khaled Meshaal, Hamas’ exiled political chief, based in Damascus, Syria, who has been blamed for blocking Shalit’s release by the militants in Gaza.

“He is not immune, no matter where he is,” Ramon told Army Radio.

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“He definitely is in our sights, just as every terrorist, every person who operates against us by means of terror, is a target.”

In Washington, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said, “Israel has the right to defend itself and the lives of its citizens. In any actions the government of Israel may undertake, the United States urges that it ensures that innocent civilians are not harmed, and also that it avoid the unnecessary destruction of property and infrastructure.”

Shaer, the Palestinian deputy prime minister, said Wednesday before his reported arrest that 750,000 of Gaza’s residents were without electricity. Palestinian officials said the airstrikes had caused as much as $15 million in damage.

Shaer, speaking to the media before a meeting of Cabinet ministers in the West Bank city of Ramallah, called for “finding a logical and just way out of this crisis through diplomatic means.”

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Finance Minister Omar Abdel Razek, also speaking in Ramallah, said Hamas would not call upon the captors to release Shalit, and instead offered support for the idea of freedom for some imprisoned Palestinians as part of a deal to let the soldier go. Abdel Razek was among those reportedly arrested later.

Hamas leaders have urged the captors to treat Shalit well, but apparently have not ordered his release.

For Israelis, the incursion represented a return to a zone of frequent battle that many were pleased to have abandoned when then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon withdrew settlers and soldiers from Gaza last summer. Although Israeli leaders Wednesday sought to reassure the public that the offensive was meant to be short-lived, there was uneasiness.

“The summer will pass and autumn will come: A massive military entry into Gaza today means a massive military presence remaining in Gaza,” commentator Sever Plotzker wrote in the daily Yediot Aharonot.

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“It also means wiping out the last great legacy of Ariel Sharon.”

One of the groups that claimed responsibility for the soldier’s kidnapping provided evidence Wednesday that it also had abducted a Jewish settler in the West Bank. A spokesman for the Popular Resistance Committees showed reporters what appeared to be a photocopy of the Israeli identification card of 18-year-old Eliyahu Asheri, from the Itamar settlement in the West Bank.

The group threatened to kill the hostage unless Israel halted the incursion, and later reported carrying out the threat.

Israel Radio reported today that Asheri’s body had been found in Ramallah.

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Israel’s Channel 2 reported that gunmen with the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade claimed to have kidnapped an Israeli man from Rishon Le Zion, inside Israel, who earlier had been reported missing.

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King reported from Gaza City and Ellingwood from Jerusalem. Special correspondent Maher Abukhater in Ramallah contributed to this report.


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