Hamas leader critical of ministers' capture

Israel is trying to oust his government, premier says


GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- As Israeli forces pounded the Gaza Strip with artillery fire and airstrikes, Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh accused Israel yesterday of trying to topple his government.

"This total war is proof of a premeditated plan," said the prime minister, who is also a senior leader of Hamas, the Islamist group that took power three months ago after winning Palestinian parliamentary elections.

Israel has said Haniyeh and other Hamas political leaders could be targeted for assassination if an Israeli soldier captured Sunday by Hamas-affiliated militant groups is not freed.

Haniyeh's sermon at a mosque in the center of Gaza City was his first public appearance since Israel sent troops and tanks into southern Gaza before dawn Wednesday. In it, he denounced Israel's roundup of more than two dozen Palestinian Cabinet ministers and parliamentarians before dawn Thursday.

"When they kidnapped the ministers, they meant to hijack the government," he said. "We say we will not be hijacked, and the government will not fall."

Israeli tanks remained poised on Gaza's northern border but held off for another day on a push into the coastal strip's northern swath, which has been heavily fortified by Palestinian militants. Egyptian mediators reportedly sought more time to try to free the soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, through diplomacy.

Israel has refused demands for an exchange that would free some of the thousands of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails in return for Shalit's freedom.

The 19-year-old tank gunner, kidnapped Sunday by militants, was reported by Israeli television yesterday to be in or near the southern Gaza town of Rafah. The report also said he had been treated by a Palestinian doctor for minor injuries.

A poll published in the Yedioth Aharonoth daily yesterday indicated that more than half of the Israelis surveyed supported negotiations for Shalit's release.

The incursion, Israel's first large-scale ground offensive in the coastal strip since it unilaterally withdrew troops and Jewish settlers last summer, has drawn a mixed international response.

The U.S. and other Western nations have urged that the soldier be freed unconditionally, but several human rights organizations have questioned sharply the need for Israel to strike at such installations as the territory's main electrical transformer.

The International Committee of the Red Cross urged yesterday that Israel lift its blockade of Gaza to allow shipments of food and medicine. Israel said it was considering reopening the main commercial crossing at Karni in coming days.

No civilians have been reported killed in the incursion, although several have been wounded. One Islamic Jihad militant died of wounds from an Israeli airstrike.

Stepping up the pressure on the Hamas-run government, Israeli officials revoked yesterday the Jerusalem residency permits of four senior Hamas officials, which permits them not only to live in Jerusalem but to travel freely within Israel.

Since the standoff over the captured soldier began, Israel has drawn no distinction between elected Hamas officials and the group's military wing.

Haniyeh and other senior Hamas officials have been taking precautions reminiscent of those during an Israeli campaign of "targeted killings" during 2003 and 2004, when the entire Hamas leadership echelon was killed in Israeli airstrikes.

Laura King writes for the Los Angeles Times. The New York Times contributed to this article.

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