Israeli forces rounded up dozens of Palestinian Cabinet ministers and MPs from Hamas today, increasing pressure on the Islamic militants to release a captured Israeli soldier.
Meanwhile 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. Israeli security officials said the body of Eliahu Asheri was found buried near the West Bank city of Ramallah.
Palestinian officials said seven Cabinet ministers and 20 MPs were arrested. Palestinian security officials said Israeli forces detained three Cabinet ministers, as well as four MPs in Ramallah. Earlier reports that deputy prime minister Nasser Shaer was arrested were incorrect. Several others were arrested in the town of Jenin, they said.
Israeli media reported a round-up of Hamas MPs in Jerusalem and other locations and the Hamas mayor of the West Bank town of Qalqiliya and his deputy were detained, security officials said.
Army Radio said the Hamas leaders might be used to trade for the captured soldier.
The military refused to comment. Israel blames Hamas for the attack on Sunday in which two soldiers were killed and a third captured when militants tunnelled under the border and attacked an army post, setting off the invasion.
Before daybreak today, 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 military denied its forces had moved into northern Gaza.
Despite the size of the Israeli operation, with large troop movements, artillery barrages and many air strikes 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 Syria.
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 defences 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 home-made 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.
Olmert threatened harsher action to free the soldier, though he said there was no plan to reoccupy Gaza. Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas condemned 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. The Israeli security officials said he was shot in the head, and they believed he was killed on Sunday, shortly after he was abducted. 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 from the central Israeli city of Rishon Lezion.
The European Union yesterday urged both Israel and the Palestinians to “step back from the brink” and, echoing a statement from US 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 US also urged Israel to show restraint.
UN Secretary-General 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 US to assume its role as “honest broker” and to make the Palestinian-Israeli conflict its top priority in the Middle East.