GAZA, (Reuters) – Israeli tanks backed by helicopter gunships and artillery pushed into the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, stepping up pressure on Palestinian militants to release an abducted soldier.
Threatening “extreme steps” if the 19-year-old corporal was not freed, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the operation would continue “over the coming days”.
To the sound of heavy machinegun fire, armoured vehicles entered Gaza near the southern town of Rafah less than a year after Israel pulled thousands of soldiers and settlers from the Gaza Strip after 38 years of occupation.
There were no immediate clashes. Israeli forces deployed at Gaza’s disused international airport, a strategic vantage point, apparently waiting to see if militants holding tank gunner Gilad Shalit would give him up without a fight.
“We have no intention of recapturing the Gaza Strip. We have no intention of staying there. We have a central goal and that is to bring Gilad home,” Olmert said in a speech in Jerusalem.
Launching the offensive three days after Shalit was captured in Israel by Palestinian gunmen in a cross-border raid, Israeli aircraft struck at three bridges in what the army said was an attempt to stop militants moving the captive.
A helicopter attack on Gaza’s only power plant sent flames shooting into the sky and cut off electricity to much of the coastal territory, where 1.4 million Palestinians live. Engineers said repairs could take six months.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called the bombardment of civilian infrastructure “collective punishment and a crime against humanity”.
Mushir al-Masri, a legislator from the governing Hamas movement, said Olmert’s “adventurism” was “putting the missing soldier at risk”.
Another group threatened to kill a Jewish settler it said it seized in the West Bank if Israel continued the raid. Israeli authorities said the settler has been missing since Sunday.
Abu Abir, a spokesman for the Popular Resistance Committees, showed a photocopy of the missing settler’s ID card at a Gaza news conference. Abu Abir and other militants then left in a hurry at the sound of sonic booms from an Israeli warplane.
Led by bulldozers to clear boobytrap bombs, tanks and armoured vehicles set up what the army called a control and observation point at the airport, just inside the Gaza border.
Other units were on standby to enter the central and northern Gaza Strip.
“We want to give (the Palestinians) breathing room,” said Captain Jacob Dallal, an Israeli army spokesman. “We don’t want to have a situation where we do too much and undermine (Shalit’s) safety.”
Preparing to confront the Israeli forces, Palestinian gunmen fanned out behind barricades and in foxholes. They blocked roads with piles of sand and planted improvised bombs.
Two Israeli soldiers and two attackers were killed in Sunday’s raid by gunmen from three factions, including Hamas’s armed wing, who tunnelled under Israel’s Gaza border fence.
The groups said the assault was in response to the killing of 14 Palestinian civilians in Israeli air strikes in Gaza against militants behind cross-border rocket attacks.
The hostage crisis was a major test for Olmert, a career politician with little security experience. He was elected in March on a platform of carrying out a similar withdrawal from parts of the occupied West Bank, another territory Palestinians would like as part of a state.
With tension growing on Tuesday, Hamas reached a political deal with Abbas, a moderate, but rejected any suggestion the plan meant it recognised Israel.
Israel dismissed the manifesto, penned by Palestinians in its jails, as “double-speak” aimed at lifting a U.S.-led aid embargo on the Palestinian Authority.