Israel arrests Hamas ministers

_16854_israeli-29-6-2006.jpgBody of Jewish settler abducted by gunmen found in West Bank as Israel turns up heat on Hamas.
By Nasser Abu Bakr – RAMALLAH, West Bank Israel arrested Hamas ministers and stepped up its Gaza offensive Thursday, ratcheting up pressure on the Palestinians over the kidnapping of a soldier that threatens to spiral into regional conflict.  

The body of a Jewish settler abducted by gunmen was also found in the West Bank, adding to tensions in the worst crisis between Israel and the Palestinians since the radical Islamist movement took office in March.


The sharp escalation in hostilities has caused renewed international concern over the Middle East and UN chief Kofi Annan led calls for restraint to ensure the conflict does not spread after Israel sent warplanes over Syria.


Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert warned he was prepared to take “extreme measures” to rescue the teenage soldier after launching the country’s biggest military operation since pulling out of Gaza in September last year.


Israel also delivered a blunt warning to archfoe Damascus, the base for several top Hamas militants blamed by the Jewish state for the kidnapping of 19-year-old Gilad Shalit.


“Regimes that support terrorism are the ones playing with the Palestinian people’s destiny,” Defence Minister Amir Peretz said.


And in a sign of the deterioration in relations between Israel and the Palestinians, army radio reported that a meeting to prepare for a summit between Olmert and Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas had been cancelled.


In the West Bank, Israeli troops rounded up 64 Hamas members, including eight ministers in the Palestinian government and 20 lawmakers in a vast military sweep overnight, Palestinian security officials said.


Some ministers were blindfolded and handcuffed as they were arrested, the sources said.


A column of about 35 tanks, armoured vehicles and bulldozers also rolled into northern Gaza under cover of darkness, the day after the launch of the ground and air assault on the territory.


Witnesses reported sporadic artillery fire in the area as combat aircraft flew overhead while troops and tanks remained on the ground in southern Gaza, where Shalit is believed to be held.


Many parts of the territory, already facing a dire humanitarian crisis because of a cut in international funds, are without electricity after war planes struck a power plant and knocked out three bridges.


Hamas, boycotted by Israel and the West as a terrorist group, condemned the arrests as “an open war against the government, the people and Palestinian legitimacy which aims to destroy the government.”


Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat urged the international community to help win the release of the arrested Hamas minister warning of a “total collapse” in the situation.


In Ramallah, Israeli troops recovered the body of 18-year-old Eliahu Asheri, a settler who the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC) had threatened to kill unless Israel halted its Gaza offensive.


Israeli military sources said he was killed by a single bullet to the head.


Peretz insisted Israel had no intention of retaking Gaza.


“We have no intention of getting bogged down any more in the swamps of this cursed territory,” he said, blaming the “total impotency” of the Palestinian Authority over the hostage crisis.


Wednesday’s rollout was the first major ground incursion into Gaza since Israel pulled out of the impoverished area last year in a highly controversial operation that ended a 38-year occupation.


Palestinians have warned the offensive would only trigger more bloodshed, with Hamas slamming it as “military madness” and Abbas branding it collective punishment.


An armed group loosely affiliated to Abbas’s Fatah party claimed to have fired a rocket with a chemical warhead at Israel but the army said it had no such reports.


The Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades also said it had kidnapped another settler, a 62-year-old man, although it was not possible to confirm the claim.


Israel’s assaults followed the failure of mediation efforts to free Shalit after his seizure in an attack Sunday that killed two soldiers and was claimed by three groups including Hamas fighters and the PRC to avenge the killing of Palestinian civilians in Israeli strikes.


White House spokesman Tony Snow backed Israel’s “right to defend itself” and blamed Hamas for the incursion, but urged Israel to ensure “innocent civilians are not harmed.”


Annan called regional leaders and appealed for restraint to ensure the conflict did not spread.


“Of course it is understandable that they would want to go after those who kidnapped their soldier but it has to be done in such a way that civilian populations are not made to suffer,” Annan told reporters.


Palestinian prime minister Ismail Haniya condemned Washington for “giving the green light to aggression,” which he demanded Israel stop before the situation worsened.


Israel also kept up the pressure on Syria, sending warplanes over the palace of President Bashar al-Assad in a clear show of force as the army went on high alert late for possible strikes by Lebanon’s Syrian-backed Hezbollah militia.


Public Security Minister Avi Dichter issued a direct threat to kill Hamas chiefs in Syria, the base of the movement’s political supremo Khaled Meshaal who escaped a Mossad attempt on his life in Amman in 1997.


Palestinian groups have vowed not to release Shalit until all Palestinian women and children are freed from Israeli jails, a demand rejected by Olmert who then ordered a force of about 5,000 troops to mass on the Gaza border.


Amnesty International called for all hostages to be released and for “an end to the wanton destruction and collective punishment” by Israel, saying many part of Gaza were without water and electricity.

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