Israel Threatens to Widen Conflict Over Captured Soldier

they are destroying bridges all throughout Gaza....* obviously, this a sign of something to you....

RAFAH, Gaza, June 28 Israel today stepped up its confrontation with Palestinian militants over the capture of an Israeli soldier and threatened an even broader response including possibly a strike in Syria if the young man is not freed.

Israel started shelling areas in northern Gaza where Palestinians often fire Qassam rockets into Israeli, preparing for a possible incursion in the north, and also flew warplanes over the house of Syrian president Bashar Assad, a blunt message, Israelis said, that he should help in freeing the soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit.

As Israeli tanks hunkered down inside southern Gaza at the airport here, with warplanes knocking out half of Gaza's electricity and pounding sonic booms over houses, there were no signs that the confrontation would ease. Rather, the crisis seemed to tip toward wider violence.

The Israeli Defense Minister, Amir Peretz, approved an extension of the Israeli incursion in northern Gaza, the area from which Palestinian militants have been firing crude Qassam rockets into Israel proper, in particular toward the towns of Sderot and Ashkelon.

About 9 P.M., after reportedly dropping leaflets urging citizens of Beit Hanoun and Beit Lahiya to leave their homes, Israeli artillery batteries began to shell, with rounds hitting areas darkened by power cuts every 45 seconds or so.

Palestinian leaders continued to insist on an exchange of the soldier for the release of women and minors from Israeli jails a condition that the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, vowed would not be considered.

The choice, Israeli officials said, was the soldier's unconditional release or an escalation that could widen the conflict regionally: Haim Ramon, Israel's justice minister, raised the possibility of a strike in Syria to kill Khaled Meshal, an exiled political leader of Hamas.

"We won't hesitate to carry out extreme action to bring Gilad back to his family," Mr. Olmert said, referring to Corporal Shalit, 19, captured in an attack near Gaza on Sunday led by Hamas. "All the military activity that started overnight will continue in the coming days."

"We do not intend to reoccupy Gaza," he said in a speech in Jerusalem. "We have one objective, and that is to bring Gilad home."

In what the Israelis said was a message to the Syrian president, Mr. Assad, four Israeli warplanes flew over his residence in Latakia, in northwest Syria, where he was believed to be staying, according to Israeli officials. Mr. Assad is the host in Syria of Mr. Meshal, the Hamas leader whom Israel and Fatah assert ordered the raid into Israel and the kidnapping of the corporal.

Meantime, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, condemned Israel's targeting of infrastructure in Gaza, which completely disabled its only power plant and knocked down three bridges on the north-to-south roads.

In a statement, Mr. Abbas said he considered "the aggression that targeted the civilian infrastructures as collective punishment and crimes against humanity."

The crisis also spilled over into a second - and possibly third - kidnapping.

In Gaza, the Popular Resistance Committees, a militant group with ties to Hamas, displayed the identity card of an 18-year-old Israeli settler, Eliahu Asheri, it claimed to have kidnapped in the West Bank. Militants said they would kill him if Israel did not halt operations in Gaza.

Israeli media also carried unconfirmed reports that a 60-year-old Israeli missing for two days had also been abducted.

But for all the saber-rattling on both sides - masked Palestinian militants continued to threaten Israeli troops here -- there was comparatively little bloodshed today.

Two Palestinians, aged 2 and 17, were reported killed today while playing with an unexploded Israeli shell in the southern town of Khan Yunis. But there were no reported casualties in Israeli airstrikes, also carried out at a Hamas training camp here and in areas in the north used by militants to shoot rockets into Israel.

Unlike other Israeli incursions in Gaza, there have been no reported skirmishes between the Israeli military and Palestinian militants, though the Israelis stayed largely out of reach, dug in at the airport here.

The airport, Israeli military officials say, will act as a staging ground for an operation that will progressively escalate until Corporal Shalit, reported to be wounded but alive after the attack, is freed.

Beyond the specific issue of Corporal Shalit, the standoff also underscored far broader, and typically complicated, political goals on both sides.

For Israelis, the operation is also aimed at deterring Hamas, its main rival and which now leads the Palestinian government, from carrying out similar attacks in the future and to end rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel. Israeli newspapers carried articles speaking of the attacks on the infrastructure as a way to extract a concrete longer-term cost for the actions of Palestinian leaders.

For many Palestinians in Gaza, the refusal to back down seemed a collective effort to highlight their own sense of grievance.

The economy has broken down under an embargo of western aid since Hamas took power in January. They contend they remain under a siege, even after the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza last year, with their borders often closed and encircled by Israeli warplanes and ships.

And there remains widespread approval for the capture of Corporal Shalit and Hamas' demand for an exchange, given that there are nearly 9,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails, among them 95 women and 313 under age 18.

"There is support for this because I am not safe when I walk on the street," contended Mustafa Raghib, director of Gaza's largest flour mill, forced to shut down for several hours after the electricity was cut. "I don't live a good life. I am not safe in my country.

"Give me a good life and I will not support actions like this," he said.

Israeli leaders said today that they had ordered the military forward after seeing little progress on diplomatic efforts - including by Egypt and France - to end the crisis and free Corporal Shalit, who also holds French citizenship.

Amid sonic booms that shattered windows, Israeli military planes hit the three bridges, as Apache helicopters targeted all six of the transformers at the power plant - an attack Israeli officials said was necessary to make any transfer of Corporal Shalit more difficult.

"Nobody understands the logic," Rafik Maliha, the plant's manager, said as firefighters worked to keep down smoke that still rose hours after the attacks. "They want to keep people in the dark so kidnappers don't move? What's the relationship?

"If there is no electricity, there is no water," he added. "It is more than collective punishment."

Both Palestinian and Israeli officials said the plant, built by Norway and run by oil subsidized by the European Union, provided some 42 percent of the power to Gaza's 1.3 million residents, and now Gaza is completely dependent on Israel for its power. Mr. Maliha, the plant's project manager, said it would take as long as a year to replace the transformers, at a cost of more than $1 million each.

On Tuesday, Palestinian negotiators from Fatah, Hamas and other factions rushed to finish a draft of a new, unified political program, based on a document compiled in May by Palestinian prisoners. The new document was published today, and it contains new language that senior Israeli officials said represented a defeat for Mr. Abbas. They said they hoped he would not sign the document and could walk away from it, because, one official said, "It takes him out of the game" and "further alienates him from Israel." The document now represents, the Israelis say, "the basis for future negotiations with Israel, and for us, this is a total non-starter."

The Israeli analysis, made by the Foreign Ministry, focuses on new language, inserted in negotiations with Hamas, that insists on the right of return, "without discrimination," for all Palestinian refugees "to their homes and properties from which they were evicted and to compensate them." The Israelis argue that this stronger language makes a nonsense of any claim that Hamas has recognized the right of Israel to exist, implicitly or otherwise, because such an interpretation of refugee rights would eliminate Israel as a Jewish state.

The document has always been silent on the statehood of Israel, but has been interpreted to give it an implicit recognition because it calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as its capital, "on all territories occupied in 1967," presumably with Israel next door.

But a senior official, who has also briefed European diplomats on the document, argued that the failure to mention Israel's right to exist speaks more loudly. "We don't see any implicit recognition of Israel by Hamas," the official said. "The most significant reason is that this right of return takes out the two-state solution."

He also noted that senior Hamas officials have denied that they have agreed to recognize the right of Israel to exist. Instead, they say they recognize the reality of Israel.

Israel, the official said, is concerned that the document is being praised by European officials, without having yet been read, as a step forward. The document, Israel says, accepts previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements only in so far as they do not "affect the rights of our people," which Israel says means "cherry-picking" previous agreements.

The draft also calls for a new legislature of the Palestine Liberation Organization to be organized by the end of this year in a way that favors Hamas, the official argued, and for a "national-unity government" that Hamas will continue to dominate, with Fatah playing a lesser, co-opted role. Mr. Abbas also appears to be giving up, in article five, the right he had insisted upon to be able to call a referendum by presidential decree, without a law passed by the Hamas-dominated Palestinian legislature, the Israeli official said.

Ian Fisher reported from Gaza for this article and Steven Erlanger from Jerusalem.

please sign this petition, inshallah it will get big, for the world to see, and to let the Palestinian people know, that we are here for them, and that they are in our hearts. If you care about the situation that has been going on for 58 years please sign this petition, the zionist have killed and destroyed enough, it is going way to far, when they were already way to far.

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