- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 29, 2006

TEL AVIV — Israeli F-16 jets buzzed the palace of Syrian President Bashar Assad yesterday to intimidate the patron of Hamas militants, tanks rolled into northern Gaza and Israel arrested the Palestinian deputy prime minister and dozens of other Hamas government officials early today, escalating its response to the abduction of one of its soldiers.

The movement of tanks into northern Gaza continued the opening of a second front in the two-day-old Israeli military response. Israel denied the northern movement.

Adding to the tension, a Palestinian militant group said it killed an 18-year-old Jewish settler kidnapped in the West Bank. Palestinian security officials said they thought the body of Eliahu Asheri had been found in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Increasing pressure on Hamas within the Palestinian territories, Israeli forces arrested more than 30 lawmakers, according to Palestinian security officials.

Among those detained were Palestinian Deputy Prime Minister Nasser Shaer, Labor Minister Mohammed Barghouti and two other ministers in the West Bank. The security officials said two others were arrested in the town of Jenin, and the Israeli press reported a roundup of Hamas lawmakers in Jerusalem and other locations.

Meanwhile, a member of the Hamas-dominated Palestinian Cabinet proposed a prisoner swap to free Cpl. Gilad Shalit after three days of captivity, the first indication that Palestinian Authority officials have any leverage over the kidnappers who are linked to Hamas’ military wing.

The abduction of Cpl. Shalit on Sunday has sparked the biggest crisis between Israel and the Palestinian Authority since Hamas came to power in a January election. It has also drawn Israel’s army back into the Gaza Strip just 10 months after it ended a four-decade occupation of the tiny coastal area.

“We won’t hesitate to take extreme steps to return the abducted soldier, Gilad Shalit, home to his family. These operations are not at their end,” said Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

“We have no intention of reconquering Gaza. We have no intention of staying there. We have one aim — bringing Gilad home.”

Defense Minister Amir Peretz reportedly authorized Israeli forces to take up positions in areas of northern Gaza that have served as a launching pad for homemade rockets used by Palestinian militants to harass communities near the Gaza border. The army is distributing leaflets warning Gaza residents to keep their distance from Israeli forces, Israel Radio reported.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh told reporters in Gaza that the Israeli incursion would make it more difficult to resolve the kidnapping.

A statement issued earlier by the Palestinian information ministry proposed that the soldier be swapped for Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails — an idea already floated by the kidnappers but not previously by the Palestinian government.

The statement noted that Israel two years ago made a swap with Hezbollah, trading hundreds of prisoners for the bodies of three Israeli soldiers killed at the Lebanon border.

Both Israeli and Palestinian officials have singled out the Damascus-based political leader Khaled Meshal as the Hamas official with the most sway over the group’s Izzadin Al Qassam militia and the primary culprit in the escalation in tensions.

Two days ago, Mr. Olmert hinted that Israel would find and punish any Hamas official deemed to be involved in the kidnapping. The flyover of Mr. Assad’s residence in the coastal city of Latakia by four aircraft was meant to signal to Mr. Assad that Israel is liable to take its fight against Hamas into Syrian territory, said a military official.

Syria’s government called the act “aggression that’s an unacceptable provocation,” Ha’aretz reported.

Israeli television reports said Mr. Assad was home at the time of the low-altitude overflight by the Israeli aircraft. Justice Minister Haim Ramon said Israel shouldn’t remain indifferent toward Syria’s role in the escalation.

“We want to send a message that if needed we have the tools to operate” in Syria, said an Israeli army spokeswoman. “The Syrian government supports Hamas and provides cover for it. This was a message that we want the soldier back and all those involved should do everything possible to secure his release.”

On the first day of “Operation Summer Rain,” Israeli armored units had set up a base at the site of Gaza’s airport, alongside the southern border town of Rafah.

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