Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Israeli forces push into Gaza Strip

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) - Israeli tanks backed by helicopter gunships pushed into the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, stepping up pressure on the Palestinians to secure the release of a kidnapped soldier.

To the sound of heavy gunfire, armored vehicles entered Gaza near the southern town of Rafah less than a year after Israel pulled thousands of soldiers and settlers from the territory following 38 years of occupation.

Led by bulldozers to clear boobytrap bombs, tanks and armored vehicles with blazing lights deployed near a disused airport just inside the Gaza border.

A leader of Hamas, the governing Palestinian Islamist group, exhorted its fighters to confront the Israelis.

"Fight your enemies, who came to their deaths. Grab your rifles and resist," Nizar Rayan said in a radio message.

Another armed group threatened to kill a Jewish settler it said it had seized in the West Bank.

Israeli aircraft struck at three bridges on key roads in what the army said was an attempt to stop militants moving the captive, Corporal Gilad Shalit. A helicopter attack on a power plant plunged much of Gaza into darkness.

Israel had threatened to launch an offensive into Gaza following the abduction of Shalit in a cross-border raid on Sunday by three factions, including Hamas's armed wing.

The hostage crisis has brought relations between Israel and the Palestinians to their lowest point since Israel quit Gaza last year after holding it since a 1967 war.


It is the biggest test yet for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

He was elected in March on a platform of carrying out a similar withdrawal from parts of the occupied West Bank, another territory Palestinians would like as part of an independent state.

With tension growing on Tuesday, Hamas reached a political deal with the more moderate President Mahmoud Abbas, but rejected any suggestion the plan meant it recognized Israel or had dropped its vow to destroy it.

Israel dismissed the manifesto, penned by Palestinians in its jails, as "double-speak" aimed at lifting a U.S.-led aid embargo on the Palestinian Authority.

Preparing to confront the Israeli forces, Palestinian gunmen fanned out behind barricades and in foxholes. They blocked roads with piles of sand and planted improvised bombs.

The Popular Resistance Committees faction threatened to kill a settler abducted in the West Bank in response to Israel's incursion. Police have not confirmed the kidnapping claim, but are investigating the disappearance of an 18-year-old settler.

Israeli troops have made brief incursions into Gaza in recent weeks, but nothing on the scale of Wednesday's operation, which recalled raids during a Palestinian uprising.

The troops moved into Gaza slowly, however, suggesting that Israel could put on a show of force to try to encourage the militants to give up Shalit without a fight.

"We are trying to make it clear that we will take the necessary steps to ensure his safe return," said Israeli Captain Jacob Dallal. "Much still depends on the Palestinians."

Hoping to head off a major flare-up, Egypt has been trying to broker Shalit's release. So has France, as the 19-year-old conscript has French as well as Israeli citizenship.

But mediators said they were close to calling it quits before the Israeli troops moved into Gaza.

There has been little word on Shalit's fate. Hamas's armed wing offered to release details if Israel frees Palestinian minors and women held in its prisons, but Olmert said such a swap was not up for discussion.

The last time Palestinian militants kidnapped an Israeli soldier was in 1994. He was killed during a rescue attempt.

Responding to Wednesday's incursion, the United States said its ally Israel had a right to defend itself but urged it to ensure that "innocent civilians are not harmed."

Militant groups said Sunday's raid was in response to the killing of 14 Palestinian civilians in Israeli air strikes in Gaza against militants behind cross-border rocket attacks.

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