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Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Israeli troops enter Gaza

ISN SECURITY WATCH (Wednesday, 28 June 2006: 13.43 CET) – Israeli forces entered the southern Gaza Strip before dawn on Wednesday morning in an operation designed to pressure the Palestinian government to work for the release of an Israeli soldier captured in a militant raid on Sunday.

Israel has deployed tanks and armored personnel carriers in open areas east of the border town of Rafah in the raid, dubbed "Summer Rain," penetrating one kilometer into the Gaza Strip in the first phase of a staged operation.

A second Israeli force is poised to enter the Gaza Strip from the north in response to Qassam rocket fire from militant groups.

CNN reports that there have been no clashes as yet between Palestinian gunmen, who patrolled the streets in cities and towns across the West Bank on Wednesday night, and the Israeli force.

The Israeli Air Force launched missile strikes against three bridges and a power station in central Gaza ahead of the ground force incursion in what military officials said was an effort to prevent militants from moving the kidnapped soldier, Corporal Gilad Shalit.

According to Ha'aretz, Israeli Prime Minster Ehud Olmert approved the ground force incursion on Tuesday night, after consultations with defense officials, in order to strike at the "terrorist infrastructure."

"Our aim is not to mete out punishment but rather to apply pressure so that the abducted soldier will be freed. We want to create a new equation - freeing the abducted soldier in return for lessening the pressure on the Palestinians," Olmert told the Knesset on Tuesday.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas decried the Israeli incursion, in comments carried by Ynet: "The offensive is a crime against humanity and collective punishment for the Palestinian people, but we are continuing with efforts to solve this problem."

The nature of the raid indicates that Israel does not have accurate information regarding the exact whereabouts of the kidnapped soldier, although it is understood that he is being held in the Khan Younis refugee camp in southern Gaza.

Shalit is thought to have suffered light wounds to his stomach and shoulder in the militant raid, a military intelligence officer told a Knesset committee Tuesday.

The Israeli soldier was seized from his tank during a raid by three militant groups on an army outpost inside Israeli territory in which two soldiers and two militants were killed and seven security force members wounded.

Egyptian and Palestinian mediators have been conducting talks with the soldier's kidnappers since Sunday without result. Egypt has deployed 2,500 security force members to the Gaza-Egypt border in a bid to prevent the kidnappers from smuggling the soldier across the border.

Israel has refused the militants' demand that Palestinian women and children in Israeli jails be set free before they provide information on Shalit.

Israel's National Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer told Israel Radio on Wednesday, "We have no desire to remain in the Gaza Strip […] We want to bring our boy home, that's all."

A spokesperson for the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC) militant group, Mohammed Abdel Al, said on Tuesday: "The soldier is in a secure place that the Zionists cannot reach."

The PRC, Army of Islam and Hamas were all involved in the outpost raid which Israeli officials claim was organized by exiled Hamas political leader Khaled Meshaal, in coordination with the head of the movement's armed wing in Gaza, Ahmed Jabri.

Some analysts believe that Sunday's raid was further evidence of a growing power struggle within Hamas between the government of Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and the exiled political leadership of the movement under Meshaal, allied with elements of the Izzedin al-Qassam armed wing.

Hamas' representative in Lebanon, Osama Hamdan, who is believed to be close to Meshaal, urged militants to take more soldiers hostage in comments to the al-Manar television station. "I believe the resistance should not be content with taking one Israeli soldier as a prisoner," he said.

Fears are growing for a second Israeli, missing since the weekend. The PRC claims to have abducted the 19-year old, Eliyahu Yitzhak Asheri, a resident of the West Bank settlement of Itamar.

A second PRC spokesperson, who identified himself as Abu Abir, told reporters on Wednesday that the settler would be "butchered in front of TV cameras" unless Israeli forces withdrew from the Gaza Strip. The group later displayed the teenager's identity card as proof that they had abducted Asheri.

PLC secretary Mahmoud Al-Ramahi told the Palestinian Information Center on Tuesday that Israel had sent secret emissaries to discuss a prisoner swap.
Hamas approves Prisoners' Document

All major Palestinian factions operating in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, aside from Islamic Jihad, have agreed to a statehood initiative giving implicit recognition to the Israeli state, sources in Fatah and Hamas announced on Tuesday.

Agreement on the 18-point Prisoners' Document was achieved in an emergency meeting on Tuesday, as pressure grew on the Hamas-led government over the kidnapping of the Israeli soldier.

"We agreed on all the points of the prisoners' initiative," Hamas spokesperson Sami Abu Zuhri told AFP.

The head of the Fatah parliamentary bloc, Azzam al-Ahmed confirmed: "An agreement was reached during a meeting of Palestinian movements and the agreement will be unveiled this evening to President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh."

Al-Ahmed confirmed that Islamic Jihad was not party to the agreement. The movement has refused to enter negotiations over the deal, which was co-authored by high-profile Palestinian prisoners in an Israeli jail representing five major political and militant factions.

The Hamas-led government's decision to back the agreement is a major coup for Abbas who had called a referendum on the plan after Hamas officials had refused to sign on to the reconciliation agreement during weeks of intensive negotiations.

The plan rules out attacks on Israeli targets outside the West Bank and Gaza Strip while calling for the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

More importantly, it recognizes the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Liberation Organization as the sole authority in conducting negotiations on behalf of the Palestinian people and calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state within the borders of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

It is the first united political platform encompassing both secular and Islamic political groupings.

Significant pressure has been brought to bear on Hamas to sign up to the document due to ongoing violence between Hamas and Fatah loyalists and an international aid boycott of the PA. Aid payments were cut due to Hamas' refusal to commit to previously signed peace deals, reject violence and recognize Israel.

It is unclear what emendations were made to the original document in final negotiations. Al-Ahmed said there were "small changes," without elaborating.

Hamas parliamentarians sought to downplay the importance of their agreement to the pre-1967 borders in comments to reporters after the agreement was sealed.

Hamas legislator Salah al-Bardaweel said: "We said we accept a state [in territory occupied] in 1967 - but we did not say we accept two states."

Abbas aide Yasser Abed Rabbo accused Hamas of "playing with words in order to save face."

(By ISN Security Watch staff, CNN, Ha'aretz, AL Jazeera, Ynet, Jerusalem Post, Palestine Information Center, Reuters, AFP)
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