GAZA,(Reuters) – Israel seized eight Hamas cabinet ministers and dozens of officials on Thursday and prepared to step up its Gaza military offensive to pressure Palestinian militants to free a kidnapped soldier.
Hundreds of Palestinian gunmen wielding automatic rifles and anti-tank weapons took up positions waiting for Israeli forces to open a second front along the Gaza Strip’s northern border, one day after tanks and infantry pushed into southern Gaza.
In an implied threat to Damascus-based Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal and his Syrian host, Israeli warplanes buzzed one of President Bashar al-Assad’s palaces on Wednesday, breaking the sound barrier. A Syrian official said the air force fired at the planes.
A Palestinian security officer said he saw several Israeli tanks roll into northern Gaza before dawn. But an Israeli military spokeswoman said troops were not yet deployed to begin ground operations in the area.
In preparation for the offensive, Israel dropped leaflets on northern Gaza urging residents to avoid areas troops may target.
In a night-time blitz in the occupied West Bank, troops arrested Finance Minister Omar Abdel-Razeq and seven other cabinet members — a third of the Hamas cabinet — along with nearly 20 legislators of the governing Islamist group, Palestinian officials said.
Many of the arrests were made at the same Ramallah hotel where the ministers were staying.
Israel said 64 Hamas officials in all were taken into custody and vowed to seize other members of the militant group, whose charter calls for Israel’s destruction.
“Recent events and especially those of the last few days prove that the results of the elections in the Palestinian Authority were translated into a government policy of terrorism,” Israel’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Jacob Dalal, an army spokesman, said: “They are not being used as bargaining chips. These are people with terrorist records, with allegations and charges pending against them.”
Israel, which quit the Gaza Strip nearly a year ago, holds Hamas responsible for the abduction of Corporal Gilad Shalit in a cross-border raid on Sunday and has demanded it ensure his safe return or suffer the consequences.
Hamas political leaders say they were not involved in planning Sunday’s attack by the movement’s armed wing and two other militant factions.
Israeli leaders have dropped strong hints that top Hamas men in the Gaza Strip, including Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, could be targets for assassination unless Shalit is returned.
Abu Ubaida, a spokesman for Hamas’s Izz el-Deen al-Qassam Brigades, called the seizure of Hamas leaders an attempt to blackmail the group into releasing information about Shalit. “This is not going to happen,” he said.
Hamas came to power after winning parliamentary elections in January. It has rejected Western demands it recognise the Jewish state, renounce violence and accept past interim peace deals.
“No one is immune,” Israeli National Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said after the West Bank seizures. “This is not a government. It is a murderous organisation.”
Adding to the tensions, the body of an 18-year-old Jewish settler was found near Ramallah, Israeli security sources said.
The Popular Resistance Committees, a Palestinian militant group, said it kidnapped and killed Eliyahu Asheri “in response to the Israeli aggression.”
There have been no clashes with Palestinian gunmen since the start of the Gaza offensive, but air strikes have knocked out power and water supplies, as well as destroying several bridges in the territory, home to 1.4 million people.
A strike in Gaza City on Thursday targeted a soccer field at the Hamas-backed Islamic University. Another in Gaza caused a fire in what the Israeli army said was a weapons storage depot, and which Palestinians described as an appliance shop. There were no injuries in either raid.