Hundreds protest in Egypt against Israeli incursion
GAZA CITY: Israeli aircrafts blasted the office of the Palestinian prime minister on Sunday, in an unmistakable message to militants from his ruling Hamas party to release a captive Israeli soldier.
Top Israeli officials, meanwhile, considered whether to escalate military operations in Gaza or give diplomatic efforts involving Egypt and other regional players more time to win the release of the 19-year-old corporal, seized last week in a cross-border raid.
Late last week, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called off plans to broaden the Israeli incursion from southern Gaza to the coastal strip s north in a nod to the diplomatic activity. On Sunday, he hinted at possible escalation when he said his government had instructed the military to do all it can to return Cpl. Gilad Shalit safely.
Palestinians said two missiles fired by attack helicopters set Prime Minister Ismail Haniya s office ablaze, but because of the early hour, 1:45 a.m. (23:45 GMT Saturday), it was empty, witnesses said. One bystander was slightly injured, hospital officials said.
Inspecting his burning office, Haniya called the Israeli attack senseless. They have targeted a symbol for the Palestinian people, he said.
Later, before meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the Palestinian Cabinet building, government, Haniya vowed, This will not break the will of the Palestinian people.
Roni Bar-On, an Israeli Cabinet minister, said the objective of the attack on Haniya s office was to compromise the Hamas government s ability to rule.
We will strike and will continue to strike at [Hamas ] institutions, said Bar-On, an Olmert ally. They have to understand that we will not continue to let them run amok.
Hamas, whose charter calls for Israel s destruction, took power after winning January parliamentary elections. The group is not monolithic, has a military wing and a political wing, and its political leadership is divided between more moderate elements in the West Bank and Gaza, and the more radical top leadership based in Syria.
Although Israel has said repeatedly in the past that Haniya could be a target for assassination, the gunmen holding Shalit are thought to take their orders from Hamas Damascus-based political chief, Khaled Meshaal, so the attack on Haniya s office appeared to be more symbolic than aimed at killing him.
In Egypt, meanwhile, several hundred people protested in Cairo Saturday against Israel s offensive in the Gaza Strip. Nearly 500 members of opposition groups including Kefaya (Enough) gathered outside the journalists union headquarters and chanted anti-Israel and anti-U.S. slogans. Resistance is not terrorism: Israel is the terrorist and Long live the struggle of the Palestinian people , they shouted. The protesters also chanted slogans against diplomatic ties between Egypt and Israel and the presence of an Israeli embassy in Egypt. Egypt and Jordan are the only Arab countries to have signed peace treaties with the Jewish state. Israel would not have been able to act in such an arrogant fashion if the Arab states had not been weak and submissive, George Ishaq, one of the leaders of Kefaya, told AFP. Israel-U.S.: one enemy read one banner waved by demonstrators who also burned a makeshift Israeli flag. Israel carried out air strikes for the fourth straight night against the Gaza Strip following the capture Sunday of an Israeli soldier in a dawn raid by Palestinian groups on an Israeli border checkpoint. There were also sporadic clashes Saturday between the Israeli army and Palestinian militants in the south of the Gaza Strip. Israel s offensive, and a perceived lack of action by world leaders, has drawn fierce criticism in the Arab world.
In other air-strikes after midnight, Israeli aircraft hit a school in Gaza city and Hamas facilities in northern Gaza, where a Hamas militant was killed and another wounded, said Palestinian officials. The military said they were planning terror attacks against Israel. The 34-year-old Hamas gunman, Shaaban Manoun, was the second militant killed in the five-day Israeli operation.
Exerting pressure on Hamas from various directions, Israel continued to hold 64 Hamas leaders, including eight Cabinet ministers, rounded up in the West Bank on Thursday night. Military officials said the government would bring the detainees before a court for the first time mid-week to seek permission to extend their detention.
Israel, meanwhile, reopened its main cargo crossing with Gaza on Sunday to allow food, medical supplies and fuel to be sent in to the impoverished strip from Israel, Israeli officials said.
The Karni passage, sealed after the militant attack, will be open for six hours each day for four days this week, said Yoni Dotan, an Israeli official at the crossing. Fuel was also moving through another border passage nearby, Dotan said.
While food shortages have not been reported, human rights groups have cautioned that Gaza could face a humanitarian crisis because about 43 percent of the territory s electricity supply was knocked out after Israeli missiles struck Gaza s only power station. Israel has increased its supply of electricity to Gaza, the Israeli army said Saturday, but fuel to power generators has been scarce.
On Saturday, Hamas demanded the release of more than 1,000 prisoners held by Israel, but Israel rejected that out of hand.
Olmert told Cabinet ministers at a meeting Sunday that Israel would not yield to Hamas demands.
Israel doesn t intend to give into blackmail of any sort, Olmert said. Giving in today would be an invitation to the next act of terror.
Hamas government spokesman Ghazi Hamad urged Israel to be more flexible.
I think that if the Israeli government will understand that it s possible to release prisoners, things will end OK, Hamad told Army Radio. If not, I think the situation will be very difficult for us and for you, too … Maybe there will be a [military] escalation and people will die.
Peretz met with senior security officials Saturday night and then called U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to urge the Bush administration to step up pressure on Syria to work for Shalit s release, Israeli officials said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were unauthorized to make a formal statement.
There has been no direct evidence of the soldier s condition since he was seized.