Israeli aircraft sent missiles tearing through the office of Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh on Sunday in an unmistakable message to his ruling Hamas group to free an Israeli soldier.
Defense Minister Amir Peretz told a Cabinet meeting that Israel would go after “higher-caliber targets” in the future – a reference to senior Hamas officials inside and outside the Palestinian territories, a high-ranking political official said.
Israeli aircraft, tanks and naval gunboats have been pounding Gaza for the past week in an effort to win the freedom of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, who was seized in a cross-border raid that left two comrades dead. Thousands of troops also were sent into the coastal strip for Israel’s first ground invasion since quitting Gaza nine months ago.
Late last week, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called off plans to broaden the incursion in deference to intense diplomatic efforts involving Egypt and other regional players. Signaling that patience with diplomacy had worn thin, Olmert told his Cabinet on Sunday that his government had instructed the military to “do all it can” to return the 19-year-old soldier safely.
There has been no direct evidence of the soldier’s condition since he was seized by Hamas-linked militant groups.
So far, the ground invasion has been focused on southern Gaza, where Israel believes Shalit was taken after being seized last week in a cross-border raid. On Sunday, officials decided to invade northern Gaza if rocket fire on southern Israel resumes from that area, security officials said.
There has been no rocket fire since Saturday night, the military said.
Palestinians said two missiles fired by attack helicopters set Haniyeh’s office ablaze, but it was empty because of the early hour – 1:45 a.m., witnesses said. One bystander was injured slightly, hospital officials said.
Haniyeh, inspecting the burning office building shortly after, called the Israeli attack senseless.
“They have targeted a symbol for the Palestinian people,” he said.
Later, before meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Haniyeh vowed, “This will not break the will of the Palestinian people.”
After the meeting, the two men surveyed Haniyeh’s damaged office together, waving through a hole in the wall.
Israeli Cabinet minister Roni Bar-On said the objective of the attack on Haniyeh’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 Haniyeh could be targeted for assassination, the gunmen holding Shalit are believed to take their orders from Hamas’ Damascus-based political chief, Khaled Mashaal, so the pre-dawn attack on the premier’s office appeared to be more symbolic than aimed at killing him.
In other airstrikes 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, Palestinian officials said. 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 this 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 area from Israel, Israeli officials said.
The Karni passage, sealed after the militant attack, will be open for six hours a day for four days this week, said Yoni Dotan, an Israeli official at the crossing. Fuel also was 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 again said Sunday that Israel would not yield to Hamas’ demands.
“Israel doesn’t intend to give into blackmail of any sort,” Olmert told his Cabinet. “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 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.