Israeli forces arrest Palestinian officials


GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- Israeli troops and aircraft tightened their hold yesterday on Gaza, firing artillery and moving new forces into northern Gaza. According to Palestinian security forces, early today Israel also arrested the Palestinians' deputy prime minister and at least six members of parliament, all to force Palestinian militants to free a kidnapped Israeli soldier.

Sharply escalating its pressure on Hamas, the Islamic militant group that controls the Palestinian Authority, Israel also sent aircraft into Syria to fly over the seaside palace of the Syrian president, a key Hamas supporter.

The deputy premier, Nasser Shaer, was arrested during a raid on a government compound in Ramallah, in the West Bank, according to Palestinian officials quoted by wire services.

Israeli military spokesmen initially declined to comment, but such a raid could significantly expand the conflict between Israel and Hamas, the group that Israel holds responsible for the kidnapping of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, 19, on Sunday.

Yesterday armored forces took over Gaza's airport, wrecked during previous military actions, and began using it as a staging area for actions near the city of Rafah, one of the areas where the captured solider might be held.

Earlier Israeli airstrikes all but destroyed Gaza's only power plant, leaving more than 800,000 Palestinians without electricity for at least the next three months while repairs are being made, the power plant manager said.

There was a brief exchange of anti-tank fire and gunfire with Palestinian militants, but no casualties were reported until early today, when Palestinian militants said they had killed a settler abducted earlier in the week in the West Bank. Their claim had not been confirmed.

Last night, the military warned Palestinians to leave their homes in northern Gaza, and military sources quoted by the Israeli press said they expected thousands of civilians to be on the move by early today.

Military officials said they were targeting the village of Beit Hanoun, where militants have launched short-range rockets at the Israeli town of Sderot.

Hamas called for a prisoner exchange with Israel, a proposal that Israel rejected. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Israel was willing to take "extreme steps" to free Shalit, whose kidnapping occurred during a raid by Palestinian militants that killed two other Israeli soldiers.

Olmert said the military operation in Gaza was not meant to harm Palestinian civilians. "We have no interest in hurting the Palestinian population," he said.

The Palestinian Authority's president, Mahmoud Abbas, deplored the military action as a "crime against humanity," and a leading Hamas politician issued a call to arms against the Israelis.

To pressure Hamas, Israeli air force jets entered Syrian airspace before dawn, flying low over the palace of President Bashar Assad in the city of Latakia, because of what Israeli officials say is his support for Khaled Meshal, the Hamas leader. Meshal lives in Syria's capital, Damascus, and Israeli officials have said that he is a target for assassination.

Israel also applied considerable pressure on Gaza's 1.4 million residents, sealing Gaza's borders with Israel and Egypt and preventing fishing boats from venturing into the Mediterranean. Israel has stopped fuel supplies from entering the area, and the lack of power and fuel could affect the pumps supplying much of Gaza's drinking water.

"It is very clear that the Israeli action is to harm as many Palestinians as possible as collective punishment," said Mohamed el-Najjar, mayor of Maghazi in central Gaza, where Israeli jets damaged the main bridge linking northern and southern Gaza.

Standing next to a gaping hole in the bridge and a tangle of steel bars exposed by the bombings, el-Najjar said the attacks did not change his position: He wants the Israeli soldier released, but only if some of the Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails are freed in return.

"We know that the soldier has been taken and he has a family, but it is our right for our families to see their fathers, mothers, sons and daughters who are in Israeli prisons," he said. "All this because a soldier was taken; what about the 10,000 Palestinian prisoners?"

The bridge spanned a fetid stream stinking of sewage. Cars seeking a way around the bridge had become stuck in the sand.

"We have no gas," el-Najjar said. "We have no electricity. We have no salaries."

In Washington, White House press secretary Tony Snow urged Hamas to release the Israeli soldier and blamed the group for events in Gaza, using harsh words to condemn its actions.

"It's the responsibility of the Palestinian Authority to stop all acts of violence and terror. Hamas has done the opposite. It's been complicit in perpetrating violence, terror and hostage-taking," Snow said. "Israel has the right to defend itself and the lives of its citizens."

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