Israel arrests Hamas Cabinet members

Israel seized Hamas leaders and stepped up its Gaza assault on Thursday, intensifying the pressure on Palestinians over the capture of a soldier that threatens to spiral into regional conflict.

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

“It is not a government, it is an organisation of killers with a leader in Damascus,” charged Israeli Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, referring to Syrian-based Hamas political supremo Khaled Meshaal.

The sharp escalation in hostilities has caused renewed international concern over the Middle East and United Nations chief Kofi Annan led urgent calls for restraint to ensure the conflict does not spread.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert warned he was prepared to take “extreme measures” to rescue 19-year-old corporal Gilad Shalit after launching Israel’s biggest military operation since pulling out of Gaza in September last year.

The army was also on high alert on its northern border after Israeli planes flew over Syria in a blunt warning to arch foe Damascus, where several Hamas leaders are sheltering.

In the West Bank, Israeli troops rounded up more than 64 Hamas members, including eight ministers—a third of the Palestinian Cabinet—and 24 lawmakers in a vast military sweep overnight.

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

Hamas, boycotted by Israel and the West as a terrorist group, condemned the arrests as a declaration of “open war” aimed at destroying its government, while Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas appealed for urgent international intervention.

Palestinians also said tanks, armoured vehicles and bulldozers rolled into northern Gaza, but this was denied by the Israeli military, which nevertheless confirmed a new air attack on an uninhabited area in southern Gaza, where Shalit is believed to be held.

There was no word on Shalit, although the group that claimed to have killed the settler issued another warning to Israel about the soldier’s fate.

“Olmert and [Defence Minister] Amir Peretz will be entirely responsible for the life of the kidnapped soldier if the aggression continues,” Popular Resistance Committees (PRC) spokesperson Abu Abir said.

In Ramallah, Israeli troops recovered the body of 18-year-old settler Eliahu Asheri, who had been shot in the head and dumped in a field in a killing claimed by the PRC.

Wednesday’s rollout was the first major ground incursion into Gaza since Israel pulled out last year in a highly controversial operation that ended a 38-year occupation of a territory that is home to 1,4-million.

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

But Peretz insisted Israel, which has a force of about 5 000 troops massed on the border, 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 crisis.

And in a sign of the sharp deterioration in relations with the Palestinians, a meeting to prepare for a summit between Olmert and Abbas has been cancelled.

It would have been their first formal meeting since the election of Hamas, which has long advocated the destruction of Israel, although this week it signed up to a political initiative that implicitly recognises the Jewish state.

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

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

Palestinian groups have vowed not to release Shalit until all Palestinian women and children are freed from Israeli jails, a demand rejected by Olmert.

White House spokesperson 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 does 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.

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.

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

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

As the threat of a regional conflagration loomed, the Arab League was due to convene an emergency meeting to discuss the crisis.

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 are without water and electricity.

Meanwhile, 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.—AFP