Left: Portraits of detained Hamas politicians in the empty Palestinian parliament; photo courtesy of Muhammed Muheisen/AP
(West Bank) Israeli troops arrested Palestinian ministers and lawmakers from the ruling Hamas party on Thursday, while simultaneously pushing forward with a military campaign in Gaza designed to win the release of an Israeli soldier held by militants.
Israel reoccupied areas of southern Gaza yesterday, bombing bridges and an electricity plant in an attempt to pressure Palestinian militants to free abducted soldier Gilad Shilat. Electricity for half of Gaza has been severed, and supplies of fuel and food have been halted to the region.
Israeli jets also flew over the summer house of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad yesterday. The move was ostensibly a show of force against a country that has been accused of harboring senior members of Hamas in the past.
State-run Syrian television said two Israeli fighters had flown over the country’s Mediterranean coast in an “aggressive act and a provocation," claiming that “national air defences opened fire in the direction of the planes, and they dispersed."
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan warned of the danger that the conflict in Gaza and the West Bank will spread across the Middle East.
"The Israeli government has a responsibility to protect its citizens, but it has to do so with restraint and, of course, it is understandable that they would want to go after those who [had] kidnapped the soldier," he said. "But it has to be done in such a way that civilian populations are not made to suffer."
The Israeli human rights organization Btselem warned that cutting eletricity would jeopardize water supplies and health care for civilian non-combatants.
"Israel has the right to all legal measures to free the abducted soldier, Corporal Gilad Shalit," the group wrote on its website. "However, Israel must refrain from using measures which contravene International Humanitarian Law, which categorically prohibits all sides to a conflict from attacking 'objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population.'"
A Hamas official described Israel's detention of the Palestinian legislators as "hostage-taking," but would not discuss whether Hamas would turn over an Israeli soldier for the release of the arrested politicians.
"It is premature to discuss this matter," Osama Hamdan said. "If the Israelis want to trade them [the Hamas politicians] for the soldier then let them say it frankly and then we will react."
Also, a body found early Thursday near the Gaza town of Ramallah was identified as that of 18-year-old Eliyahu Yitzhak Asheri, a West Bank settler seized by Palestinian militants.