In Gaza, Seeking Shelter From Israeli Fire

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 30, 2006

BEIT HANOUN, Gaza Strip, June 29 -- Fatin Shabaat left home here Thursday with her three hip-high children, looking for safety from a slow-moving Israeli military assault launched to free a 19-year-old soldier being held by Palestinian gunmen.

Israeli artillery batteries lobbed shells around this farming community in the Gaza Strip's northeastern corner throughout the day, after leaflets dropped from the sky warned residents to remain clear of Israeli military operations. Shells whistled overhead, slamming into the fields and dunes where Palestinian gunmen regularly fire crude rockets at the Israeli city of Sderot, a white smudge along a ridgeline three miles away.

Although she never received one of the written warnings, Shabaat clutched her children, ages 2, 3 and 4, and headed to her father's home in the town center, far from the dirt paths that have served in the past as routes for Israeli tanks. An Israeli airstrike had already left her without electricity, along with about 700,000 other residents of the strip, and artillery shells were falling close to her back yard.

"This is only going to get worse," said Shabaat, 25, who despite the impending clash favors keeping the Israeli soldier captive until at least some Palestinian prisoners are released from Israeli jails. "We will not get anything otherwise. And they are going to invade anyway. This soldier is just an excuse."

Shabaat's grim prognosis regarding the crisis over the captured Israeli soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, was echoed in the West Bank, where the Israeli military arrested more than 60 officials from the governing Hamas movement in a pre-dawn sweep. The detainees included two dozen members of parliament and nine cabinet ministers, more than a third of the Hamas cabinet.

[Early Friday morning, Israeli military aircraft fired missiles at the Interior Ministry headquarters in Gaza City, setting the building ablaze. An army spokesman said the ministry, headed by Saed Siyam of Hamas, was being used "for the planning and carrying out of terrorist activities." Siyam's office was struck directly.

[Israeli airstrikes also hit several other targets Friday, including the headquarters of a new Interior Ministry militia dominated by Hamas members and a building that military officials said was used by al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the Fatah party's armed wing. Missiles also struck roads in the north and south of the strip, some landing near a key bridge that had already been hit this week. There were no immediate reports of injuries.]

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government holds Hamas responsible for Shalit's capture, which occurred Sunday during an attack on an army post just outside Gaza's southeastern corner that left two soldiers dead. The radical Islamic movement's armed wing was involved in the attack and is one of three groups demanding the release of 421 Palestinian women and minors in Israeli prisons in exchange for information about Shalit's welfare.

Israel has arrested elected members of the Palestinian legislature before, but never as many as it did Thursday.

Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, said the detained Hamas officials would be either charged and brought to trial or released in the days ahead. He said plans to arrest Hamas officials for belonging to what Israel designates a terrorist organization had been in the works since Hamas's armed wing ended a 15-month cease-fire with Israel after the June 9 explosion on a Gaza beach that killed seven members of a Palestinian family.

Regev denied speculation that the Hamas legislators would be offered in exchange for Shalit's freedom. "Hamas's involvement in terrorism is the reason for these arrests, nothing more," he said.

But Palestinian political analysts said they believed the arrests were timed to undermine a rare political agreement reached this week by leaders of the two leading Palestinian political movements, Fatah and Hamas.

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