Israel vows ‘extreme measures’ to rescue soldier

_16842_Israeli-army-28-6-2006.jpgHamas government proposes freeing captured Israeli soldier in exchange for releasing their prisoners held by Israel.
By Charles Levinson – RAFAH, Gaza Strip Israel launched a ground and air assault on the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, vowing it would use “extreme measures” to try to free a teenage soldier held hostage by Palestinian militants.  

But Palestinians warned the offensive would only trigger more bloodshed, with the Hamas-led government slamming it as “military madness” and Palestinian Authority president Mahmud Abbas branding it collective punishment.

The Hamas government proposed releasing a captured Israeli soldier in exchange for freeing Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.


“We have sent letters to the foreign ministries of Arab governments asking them to support a negotiated solution that includes the exchange of Palestinian detainees imprisoned by the Israeli occupation for the kidnapped Israeli soldier,” foreign ministry spokesman Taher Nunu said.


It was the first major ground incursion into Gaza since Israel pulled settlers and troops from the impoverished coastal strip last year in a highly controversial operation that ended a 38-year occupation.


“We decided to use extreme means to bring Gilad (Shalit) home and we have no intention of reoccupying the Gaza Strip,” Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was quoted as saying by public radio referring to the abducted 19-year-old conscript.


“Last night’s operation will continue. No one who is involved in terror will be immune. We have one central goal: to bring Gilad home.”


Much of Gaza was plunged into darkness after war planes waged night-time strikes to blow up a power plant and three bridges as militants prepared for a potential invasion by building barricades and blocking roads.


Troops in tanks, armoured cars and bulldozers with lights blazing rolled several kilometres (miles) into southern Gaza where the missing serviceman was believed to be held, pushing into the disused international airport near Rafah.


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


He said Israel had issued warnings to Syria about the presence of Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders in Damascus but that they were disregarded. “This therefore gives Israel full permission to attack these assassins.”


No casualties were reported in the Gaza incursion, which followed intensive efforts to free Shalit after his seizure in an attack Sunday that killed two soldiers and was claimed by three groups including fighters loyal to Hamas.


Israel later Wednesday carried out a raid on a Hamas training camp in Rafah. No casualties were reported but two Palestinians were killed, including a one-year-old baby girl, when a grenade accidentally exploded in nearby Khan Yunis, medical and security sources said.


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


The raids followed a landmark agreement Tuesday between Palestinian factions on an political initiative that implicitly recognises Israel’s right to exist, a historic policy shift by Hamas which has long advocated the destruction of the Jewish state.


Israel dismissed the deal however as an “internal matter”.


EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner urged restraint, calling for the soldier’s release and for Israel to act to ensure an already dire humanitarian situation for Palestinians does not deteriorate.


“Both sides need to step back from the brink before this becomes a crisis that neither can control,” she said.


The situation on the ground was further complicated when an armed Palestinian group claiming to hold the soldier also threatened to kill a Jewish settler it said it had abducted in the occupied West Bank.


“Unless the aggression stops, we will kill the settler,” said a representative of the Popular Resistance Committees, which claimed Sunday’s attack along with the armed wing of Hamas and another group.


The kidnapping has triggered the worst Middle East crisis since Hamas took office in March after an election win that sent shockwaves throughout Israel and the West.


It also presented the first major security challenge for Olmert since he took office in May pledging to unilaterally redraw the map of Israel even without negotiations with the Palestinians.


Egypt, France and the Vatican, as well as the United States, had sought to exert pressure on the Palestinians to hand over the soldier.


Hamas held an urgent Palestinian cabinet meeting in a bid to find a way out of the standoff, with deputy prime minister Nasserdine al-Shaer calling on the kidnappers to “preserve his life.”


Government spokesman Ghazi Hamad was quoted as saying by the official WAFA news agency that the offensive was unjustified “military madness” and accused Israel of seeking to cause “chaos and provoke a new bloody conflict.”


Israel has concentrated its forces a few kilometres into southern Gaza where it believed Shalit was being held, with most around the abandoned airport.


At one point troops were attacked by light arms fire and an anti-tank missile and militants also fired four rockets into Israel from northern Gaza.


Militants had erected earthen mounds across roads and sealed off entrances to refugee camps in parts of Gaza, one of the most densely populated regions on earth.


Men, women and children packed into cars and a horse-drawn cart fled into Rafah from areas to the east as Israeli troops entered the territory while armed gunmen prowled the streets.


“We’re going someplace safe. We saw the tanks coming and we decided to leave before anything else happens,” said Mohammed Abu Zakr.


Sunday’s attack, which saw gunmen tunnel their way into Israel in an assault that has raised questions over possible military and intelligence failings, was the deadliest in the area since Israel’s pullout from Gaza.


Tensions have long been mounting, with Israel and the West both financially and politically boycotting Hamas as a blacklisted terror group, plunging the territories into a deep crisis.


Past history of soldiers kidnapped at the hands of Palestinians bodes ill for Shalit, with all nine such previous cases ending in death.

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