- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 2, 2006

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Israel massed tanks and troops along Gaza’s northern border early today, firing artillery and unleashing more air strikes in a show of force after the prime minister ordered his army to “do all it can” to free an abducted soldier.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s warning signaled the government was losing patience with diplomatic efforts to end the week-old crisis over the captive soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, and was preparing for an escalation of its military offensive.

Israeli aircraft went back into action early today, hitting several targets across the Gaza Strip including a building in Gaza City where the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade has an office, Palestinians and the military said. Al Aqsa is a violent offshoot of moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah movement.

A missile struck the second floor of the two-story building, setting it on fire. No one was in the office at the time of the attack. A family living on the first floor escaped harm.

Israel also shelled northern Gaza early today, slightly wounding one person in a house on the outskirts of the town of Beit Hanoun, Palestinians said. The military confirmed artillery was fired in the area.

Aircraft, gunboats and artillery have pounded the Gaza Strip since Israeli soldiers and tanks took up positions in southern Gaza on Wednesday trying to pressure Palestinians to free Cpl. Shalit. Five Palestinian fighters had been reported killed, including four yesterday.

Hamas-affiliated militants holding Cpl. Shalit have offered to give Israel information about him in exchange for the release of hundreds of prisoners in Israeli jails, a deal Israel rejects.

“These are difficult days for Israel, but we have no intention of giving in to any form of blackmailing,” Mr. Olmert said yesterday. “Everyone understands that giving in to terror today means an invitation to the next act of terrorism, and we will not act that way.”

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Mr. Olmert yesterday to discuss the situation, Mr. Olmert’s office said. He told Miss Rice that Israel would use all means at its disposal to get Cpl. Shalit released and said there was no humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Israel reopened a cargo crossing into Gaza to allow shipments of food and fuel into the territory. Palestinian officials had warned Saturday that a shortage of fuel threatened to shut down generators used to pump water and power hospitals.

Mr. Olmert told his Cabinet that he had instructed the military to “do all it can” to get Cpl. Shalit back safely, but added that the offensive would end immediately if he is released, said a meeting participant, who agreed to tell about the discussions only if not quoted by name.

Last week, Israel arrested eight Cabinet ministers in the Hamas-led Palestinian administration and dozens of other top Hamas leaders in the West Bank.

Mr. Olmert told the Cabinet that such arrests could spread. Hamas’ power base is in Gaza, where many of its top leaders, including Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, live.

“I don’t promise that the arrests of senior Hamas officials will be limited to Judea and Samaria,” Mr. Olmert said, according to the meeting participant, using the biblical names for the West Bank. “Wherever there is a proven terror infrastructure, there will be arrests. There will be immunity for no one.”

Egypt has been working to broker a compromise to free the soldier and end the standoff, but negotiations were complicated by confusion over who was in charge of Cpl. Shalit’s fate.

The Palestinian government, led by the Islamist militants of Hamas since January elections, said it had no contact with the kidnappers. Israel assumes Cpl. Shalit’s captors answer to Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, who lives in Syria, but the group’s foreign leadership denied having any authority over the matter.

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