Offensive’s target safe in Damascus

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JERUSALEM — While ordinary Palestinians continue to dodge Israeli helicopter strikes, machine-gun fire and incursions by tanks and soldiers on foot, the “most wanted” target of Israel’s offensive is safely hiding hundreds of miles away.

Top Hamas leader Khalid Mashaal, 50, is a guest of the Syrian government in Damascus.

For Israel, he is the master puppeteer of Hamas, pulling the strings behind terror attacks and waging an unrelenting ideological war designed to wipe the Jewish state off the map.

“Like [Osama bin Laden], the leader of al Qaeda, Mashaal is a terrorist of the worst kind,” said Israel Justice Minister Haim Ramon.

Israel vowed yesterday to pursue air and ground assaults in the Gaza Strip indefinitely, rebuffing a proposed truce and keeping pressure on militants to free an abducted soldier and halt cross-border rocket attacks.

“This is a war that cannot be on a timetable,” a senior government official quoted Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as telling his Cabinet yesterday, Reuters news agency reported.

On Saturday, Ismail Haniyeh, the Palestinian prime minister from Hamas, called for a cease-fire, with the Palestinian death toll from the fighting at about 50. One Israeli soldier also has died.

While Mr. Haniyeh appealed for calm, Israel blamed his Hamas colleague Mashaal for the continuing captivity of its soldier, 19-year-old Cpl. Gilad Shalit, who was snatched out of his tank by Palestinian militants two weeks ago.

But it is not just Israel for whom Mashaal, known as an inflexible hard-liner, is a headache. While he remains largely safe in Damascus, Hamas leaders within Israel’s reach in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are feeling the heat.

“The orders [to kidnap Cpl. Shalit] came from Syria, against, maybe, the better judgment of the Palestinian leaders on the ground,” said a senior Israeli leader.

In the West Bank, a host of those Hamas leaders, including eight Cabinet ministers, have been rounded up by Israel. In Gaza, Mr. Haniyeh knows that he will become a target for Israeli assassination if Cpl. Shalit is harmed.

Although Mr. Haniyeh, a relative moderate, has called for the Israeli soldier’s safety to be guaranteed, recent days have shown that he has little influence over the fate of the soldier, even though one of the three militant factions holding him is Hamas’ own armed wing.

“The problem is that you don’t know who’s in charge, which group we’re talking to,” said Cpl. Shalit’s father, Noam.

“If Haniyeh, as the representative of Hamas, wants to safeguard Gilad’s life, then who’s the Hamas that’s threatening him?”

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