Gunmen Claim to Kill West Bank Settler

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 29, 2006

GAZA CITY, June 29 -- Palestinian gunmen holding an 18-year-old Israeli settler announced before dawn Thursday that they had carried out their threat to kill him. Israeli military officials later said soldiers had found a body matching the description of Eliyahu Asheri near the West Bank city of Ramallah, although officials had yet to make a definitive identification.

During a news conference here Wednesday, members of the Popular Resistance Committees pledged to execute Asheri, from the northern West Bank settlement of Itamar, unless Israel stopped a military operation in Gaza that officials say is underway to free Cpl. Gilad Shalit, a 19-year-old Israeli soldier captured by Palestinian gunmen this week. It was unclear, however, when the body believed to be Asheri's had been killed.

At about the time the group announced Asheri's execution, Israeli troops swept through the West Bank and arrested more than a dozen political officials from Hamas, the radical Islamic movement responsible for the operation of the Palestinian government.

Among those arrested during a raid on a compound near Ramallah were Deputy Prime Minister Nasser Shaer, two other Cabinet ministers and four lawmakers. Israeli soldiers had arrested Labor Minister Mohammed Barghouti earlier in the operation, which in all swept up more than 30 Hamas officials across the West Bank. Hamas officials gave those estimates. Israeli military officials said they could not comment on an ongoing operation.

Asheri's apparent death and the Hamas arrests were certain to inflame the confrontation surrounding Shalit's capture, which broadened early Thursday to include airstrikes on what military officials described as a weapons storage site in Khan Younis, roads in southern Gaza and an open area in Gaza City.

The Popular Resistance Committees is one of three armed groups, including Hamas's military wing, that are holding Shalit. It was not clear, however, how the Hamas arrests were related to either Asheri's or Shalit's case.

But the arrest operation followed a call from the Hamas-run government Wednesday to exchange Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails for Shalit, bringing the movement's elected political leadership directly into the dispute. Israel's Army Radio reported that the arrested Hamas lawmakers would be offered for Shalit's release.

The arrests came after Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's warning Wednesday that Israel "will not hesitate to take extreme steps" to free Shalit, who was captured by Palestinian gunmen during an attack Sunday on an army post that left two soldiers dead.

Near midnight on Wednesday, Israeli aircraft dropped leaflets over several towns in northern Gaza warning residents not to interfere with military operations, suggesting that the start of one could be imminent. Israeli artillery batteries, quiet for nearly three weeks, had begun firing into open areas in the northern strip a few hours earlier.

"The full responsibility for the situation we are in belongs to the Palestinian-Hamas government and elements that are connected to it in Syria," said Olmert, referring to the movement's political leadership in exile that Israeli officials believe ordered the Sunday attack. Israeli military jets later buzzed the Syrian coastal city of Latakia, shaking President Bashar Assad's summer residence with a sonic boom.

"Any deterioration in the situation, and any worsening in the situation of the population, will be in their direct responsibility," Olmert said.

The Israeli military campaign here began before dawn Wednesday. An Israel airstrike on a main power station left roughly 700,000 people in Gaza -- about half the population -- without electricity. Engineers estimated that it could take three months to repair.

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