- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 6, 2006

JERUSALEM — Israel stepped up pressure yesterday on Hamas militants who launched improved, longer-range rockets into the heart of a major Israeli city, authorizing the army to enter populated areas in the northern Gaza Strip.

The planned invasion threatened to be far bloodier than Israel’s week-old offensive in Gaza aimed at freeing an abducted soldier.

Israeli forces seized control of former Jewish settlements in the northern Gaza Strip yesterday.

Israel’s Gaza incursion began last week with the goal of bringing home a captured soldier, but Prime Minister Ehud Olmert vowed to step up the operation after rockets hit Ashkelon, seven miles inside Israel.

To carve out a sufficiently wide buffer zone to protect Israeli towns from such attacks, the army might have to go into densely populated areas, where it can expect fierce resistance from Palestinian militants.

Previous raids into the northern town of Jebaliya have sparked running gunbattles that have caused serious casualties on both sides.

“There will be steps taken, and they will be very serious,” said Cabinet Minister Yitzhak Herzog, who refused to elaborate on the military’s plans. “There is a very broad operation here. It will continue.”

Israel has had soldiers massed on its border with northern Gaza since last Thursday, but Israeli officials postponed a planned invasion as international mediators sought a way out of the standoff over Cpl. Gilad Shalit. Palestinian militants captured the 19-year-old soldier June 25.

Justice Minister Haim Ramon said yesterday that he thinks Cpl. Shalit, who reportedly was wounded in the attack, is alive and being held in Gaza.

The Security Cabinet’s decision to step up a ground offensive indicated that Israel could be prepared to partially reoccupy Gaza less than a year after withdrawing all troops and settlements from the area.

Mr. Olmert convened the urgent meeting after Hamas militants fired a rocket Tuesday into Ashkelon, a southern Israeli city of 110,000 people. Militants fired a second rocket yesterday that hit an orchard in the city. The attacks caused no injuries, but marked the first time rockets have penetrated so far into Israel, signaling that militants have improved the range of the primitive weapons.

As Egyptian and Turkish mediators tried to end the worsening crisis, Mohammed Awad, the Palestinian Cabinet secretary, told reporters in Gaza yesterday that the “Israeli escalation is posing a threat to these ongoing efforts and it must stop.”

In Cairo, Egypt’s mediation efforts ground to a halt because Hamas’ Syria-based political chief, Khaled Mashaal, refused to press for the unconditional release of Cpl. Shalit and because of growing mistrust between Egypt and Hamas, Egyptian and Palestinian officials said.

Mr. Mashaal was turning his attention to Turkey, which has stepped up diplomacy in an effort to end the standoff, the Palestinian officials said.

Mr. Mashaal has denied Israel’s claims that he masterminded Cpl. Shalit’s capture.

The Hamas-linked militants holding the soldier have demanded that Israel release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for information about the captive.

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