Israelis Increase Pressure On Hamas

An Israeli soldier flinches as ground forces fire toward the Gaza Strip. The military has targeted rocket-launching sites in northern Gaza.
An Israeli soldier flinches as ground forces fire toward the Gaza Strip. The military has targeted rocket-launching sites in northern Gaza. (By Baz Ratner -- Associated Press)
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 1, 2006

GAZA CITY, June 30 -- Israel has taken an escalating series of military and political steps against Hamas that officials said are aimed at weakening the radical movement's hold on the Palestinian government, even as the search continues for a 19-year-old Israeli soldier captured this week by Palestinian gunmen.

The steps against Hamas include the arrests of more than 60 officials, including eight cabinet members, an airstrike on the Interior Ministry, and a decision Friday to strip four Hamas officials of their Jerusalem residency rights. Israeli officials acknowledge that the bold measures signal a broad new effort against the movement and, by extension, the fragile government it controls.

The military pressure continued on Friday, with periodic artillery shelling at rocket-launching sites in northern Gaza and two missile strikes that caused no injuries. Some of the measures were planned even before the soldier was kidnapped. A number of Israeli military officials say Israel should have carried out the plans long ago.

Israel considers Hamas, known formally as the Islamic Resistance Movement, a terrorist organization. However, Israel allowed Palestinian parliamentary elections to go forward in January and allowed Hamas candidates to compete. Hamas, whose charter calls for Israel's destruction, won a surprising legislative majority and now runs the day-to-day operations of the Palestinian government, which is crippled by economic sanctions imposed soon after the election.

Hamas's leadership vowed Friday to resist the pressure. "With the help of God, we will continue to do whatever it takes to continue the work and to assume our responsibility," Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas told more than a thousand people gathered in Gaza at the al-Mohata Mosque. "We will not let you down. We will not abandon our responsibilities."

Israel's interior minister, Roni Bar-On, informed four elected Hamas officials, including one cabinet minister, that a month-long grace period he gave them to leave Jerusalem had expired. Like roughly 250,000 Palestinians, the men have Israeli-issued permits to live in their family homes in East Jerusalem, occupied by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war and later annexed by the Jewish state.

The Hamas officials who lost their residency were Khaled Abu Arafa, the minister of Jerusalem affairs, and legislators Mohammed Abu Tir, Mohammed Totah and Ahmad Attoun. Their attorney called the interior minister's action a form of expulsion that violated international law governing the rights of those living in occupied territory.

"We are planning to appeal to the Israeli supreme court and, if that fails, we will pursue international proceedings," said the attorney, Hassan Jabareen. "Our claim is that the decision of the ministry is political."

Israel's move Friday came while it continues to hold more than 60 Hamas officials, including eight cabinet members, following a series of arrests throughout the West Bank a day earlier. Israeli officials say they are seeking the soldier's release through political and military means, which are being felt acutely here in the Gaza Strip.

Cpl. Gilad Shalit was taken by Palestinian gunmen Sunday during an attack on an Israeli army post just outside Gaza's southeastern border. The raid, carried out by Hamas's military wing and two smaller armed groups, left two soldiers dead. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has threatened a broad military operation in Gaza, including significant numbers of ground forces for the first time since Israel's departure last September, to win the soldier's release.

[The Reuters news agency reported Saturday that the Palestinian militant groups demanded that Israel free 1,000 prisoners and end the assault on Gaza. Israel has said it will not consider releasing prisoners in exchange for Shalit.]

The tanks and troops remained in place along Gaza's eastern border Friday and were likely to continue to idle through the Jewish Sabbath. Israel's security cabinet was scheduled to meet Saturday evening to decide what course the operation would take as Egyptian officials worked to persuade the hard-line exiled Hamas leader, Khaled Mashal, to order Shalit freed.

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