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Israeli forces tighten their grip on Gaza

RAFAH, Gaza Strip—Israel tightened its military grip on the Gaza Strip and sent fighter jets into Syrian air space Wednesday as an intensifying campaign to find a soldier kidnapped by Palestinian militants entered its second day.

The decision to send F-16 fighters to buzz a palace that belongs to Syrian President Bashar Assad was a clear indication that Israel views the abduction Sunday of Cpl. Gilad Shalit as part of a broader Middle East crisis.

Senior Hamas leaders live in Syria, and there's growing belief that they, rather than their counterparts in Gaza, were behind Shalit's abduction. Israeli reports said Assad was at the palace when the Israeli jets passed overhead.

Israeli forces cut off power throughout much of Gaza, destroyed key bridges and seized the Gaza Strip's defunct airport near the Egyptian border in southern Gaza. Israeli helicopters and artillery kept up a steady rain of fire throughout southern Gaza, and scores of Palestinians fled their homes ahead of the advancing troops.

Early Thursday, Israel opened a second front, moving tanks into an unpopulated area of northern Gaza. Israeli forces had distributed fliers earlier warning residents of the Beit Hanoun village to leave.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert threatened to take "extreme action" if Shalit, 19, weren't freed soon.

Palestinian militants allied with Hamas vowed to kill a young Israeli settler who also was kidnapped Sunday unless Olmert halted the Gaza Strip raid. Hours later, the group claimed it had killed the settler, according to news reports.

In the southern Gaza city of Rafah, masked gunmen armed with rocket-propelled grenades and mines rushed through alleys to prepare for an expected military assault, but Palestinian troops at the airport withdrew rather than fight, and no casualties were reported.

"We are so afraid they might kill us tonight because the tanks are two steps from our home," Umm Assad Adwan said as she hustled one of her daughters down a dusty Gaza Strip street during a lull in shelling.

The offensive was Israel's largest military operation since it pulled all its soldiers and settlers out of the predominantly Palestinian Gaza Strip last summer in a bid to defuse tensions.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas denounced the offensive as a "crime against humanity" and called on the international community to step in to help bring the invasion to a quick end.

Olmert said the campaign would end and his troops would pull back as soon as Palestinian militants freed Shalit, who was seized during a cross-border raid by Palestinian commandos. But he warned that the military wouldn't leave without Shalit.

"We won't hesitate to carry out extreme action to bring Gilad back to his family," he said.

That comment and the aerial incursion over Syria suggested that Israel might consider assassinating Hamas leaders in Syria, including the group's political leader, Khaled Mashaal.

It's unclear whether Israel has hard evidence linking Mashaal to Shalit's abduction, but analysts noted that Hamas leaders in Gaza had agreed to stop attacks in Israel on Saturday, the day before Shalit was captured. They also pointed out that Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh doesn't come from Hamas' military wing.

Haim Ramon, Israel's justice minister, told Army Radio that Mashaal was "definitely a target" for possible assassination.

Shalit hasn't been seen since his capture, but Hamas militants are thought to be holding him somewhere in southern Gaza, where Israel has concentrated its forces so far.

The Israeli military said it was working to corner Shalit's captors by bombing their potential escape routes and slowly cordoning off the area.

Throughout the day Wednesday, Israel kept up pressure. It attacked a Hamas training base and fired dozens of artillery shells close to Palestinian neighborhoods. Israeli aircraft created sonic booms that rattled windows and nerves in Gaza City.

At nightfall, Israel began firing artillery shells into northern Gaza and troops appeared to be preparing to take control of areas that Palestinian militants used to fire rudimentary rockets into southern Israel.

The military also destroyed a Gaza Strip power station that supplies energy to about half of the area's 1.3 million Palestinians. That raised fears that water soon could be in short supply, because the station powers many of the region's electric water pumps. Palestinian officials said it could take months to rebuild the station.

Palestinian militants threatened retaliation, holding a news conference to display a copy of an identification card that belongs to the Jewish settler who was kidnapped in the West Bank. The militants, members of the Popular Resistance Committees, said Eliyahu Asheri would be killed if the Gaza Strip operation didn't end.

In Rafah, militants spent the day preparing for battle.

At dawn, masked Hamas militants carried machine guns, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and mines to defensive positions. Others kept watch on Israeli tanks that rolled into the airport nearby.

"We are not afraid, because we have God on our side and we have proven that we are able to hit the well-equipped army from time to time," one masked Hamas member said in an alley near the center of Rafah.

Across Gaza, there was widespread sympathy for the militants who are holding Shalit. In interview after interview, Palestinians said the Israeli soldier shouldn't be given back without getting something in return, such as the 100 Palestinian women and 300 Palestinians younger than 18 who are in Israeli prisons.

Time and again, Palestinians invoked the killing earlier this month of eight Palestinian picnickers during Israeli shelling of the northern Gaza coast. An Israeli military investigation cleared the military of responsibility for the deaths, but that finding is in dispute. No matter who's responsible, the incident has become a rallying cry for Palestinians ever since images were broadcast around the world of 11-year-old Huda Ghaliya wailing over her slain father on the beach that day.

"When the world saw the Palestinians killed on the beach that day, nobody did anything," said a Palestinian soldier who gave his name only as Abu Mohammed. "When one Israeli soldier was kidnapped, everybody moved."


(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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