GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- Israeli forces battered the Gaza Strip yesterday and early this morning with airstrikes and hundreds of artillery shells after the detention of top Hamas lawmakers and ministers, as the search for a kidnapped Israeli soldier continued.
But Israeli officials stalled a planned military incursion into the northern Gaza Strip, apparently to allow time for more negotiations to secure the soldier's release, according to Israeli press reports. Warplanes bombed the Palestinian Interior Ministry early today.
In the last 72 hours, Israeli ships, aircraft, tanks and troops have encircled Gaza, steadily tightening their grip on its 1.4 million people. Israeli forces have knocked out Gaza's main power station, destroyed bridges and roads, leaving thousands of families without electricity or running water. Shortly after midnight today, Israeli warplanes bombed several targets, including the Interior Ministry and Hamas and Fatah offices.
But the military effort has yet to free the 19-year-old soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, who was abducted by Palestinian militants on Sunday.
At a meeting of security officials, Amir Peretz, Israel's defense minister, said yesterday that a breakthrough in the negotiations was still possible.
"We find ourselves in a most critical moment as we create the new rules of the game against terror organizations," Peretz said, as reported by Haaretz. "Every operation that is undertaken will have to be thoroughly examined according to how it will affect these rules."
Early yesterday, Israeli authorities arrested 64 members of the Islamic militant group Hamas, including 20 top lawmakers and at least seven members of the Palestinian Authority's 23-member Cabinet.
Among those detained were parliament speaker Abdel Aziz Duaik and Religious Affairs Minister Nayef Rajoub.
Israeli authorities defended the arrest sweep as a response to Hamas' decision in recent weeks to renounce a cease-fire and participate in violence against Israel, including rocket attacks and the kidnapping of Shalit.
Hamas, which has been responsible for scores of suicide bombings and other attacks against Israel, is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States and the European Union.
"If Hamas is back in the terrorism business after a time out then they can't complain if Israeli is going to respond accordingly," said Mark Regev, spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry.
Regev dismissed speculation that the detained lawmakers would be used as bargaining chips to secure the release of the soldier. He said other Hamas officials might be arrested.
Saeb Erekat, a member of the Palestinian parliament and a supporter of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, said the detentions of Palestinian government officials would not aid Israel's search for its kidnapped soldier.
"At the end of the day, these arrests undermine the effort to get the soldier released," Erekat said. "I believe these policies will backfire. I think the Israelis are very shortsighted."
Erekat said he had given up hope that negotiations would lead to the release of Shalit, although he said that his release may not lead to the end of the Israeli incursion into Gaza.
Earlier yesterday, the body of a kidnapped 18-year-old West Bank settler who had been shot in the head was found in Ramallah, a day after his Palestinian captors vowed to kill him if Israel did not bring an end to its invasion of the Gaza Strip.
The Popular Resistance Committees claimed responsibility for kidnapping Eliahu Asheri of Itamar as he was hitchhiking from Jerusalem back to his religious school north of Ramallah.
Abu Abir, a spokesman for the PRC movement, said that Asheri was kept alive for two days before being executed when the Israeli military action in Gaza did not stop, according to Israel Radio.
In southern Gaza, Palestinian militants blew a huge hole in a wall near the border with Egypt, which has been closed by Israel as part of the military operation. People poured across the border until Palestinian officials repaired the wall.
Throughout the day Palestinians continued preparing for what they expected could be a prolonged stay by Israeli forces, by building sand berms and other defenses at the entrances to their communities and stockpiling food and water.
Mohammad Nazek el Kafarna, mayor of Beit Hanoun, sat in his air-conditioned office watching television images of tanks, armored personnel carriers and soldiers idling on the northern edge of the Gaza Strip.
He said he had no doubts that the forces were headed his way. Israeli aircraft had dropped thousands of pink leaflets into the town, warning Palestinians to beware of an impending military operation. "Anyone who makes themselves an obstacle will be in danger," said the leaflet, written in Arabic.