Hamas vows revenge after Israel hits PM's office


by Sakher Abu El Oun 45 minutes ago

GAZA CITY (AFP) - Israel has struck at the heart of the Palestinian government on Sunday, hitting the Gaza office of the Hamas prime minister in a new wave of air raids and warning it would use all its power to free a soldier captured by militants a week ago.

The armed wing of Hamas threatened to retaliate by resuming attacks inside Israel, predicting the region would sink in a "sea of blood" if the Israeli offensive continued.

"The Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades warn the Zionist enemy: if its operations continue, we will hit the occupation targets we were previously reluctant to strike," said a statement received by AFP in Gaza City.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert vowed his government would not bow to "blackmail" as Palestinians cautioned that Egyptian-led mediation efforts under way to free the captured 19-year-old corporal, Gilad Shalit, were faltering.

"Efforts continue but so far in vain. We are near an impasse," Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas's spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina told reporters.

Israel has launched its biggest military operation in a year over the captured soldier, sending troops back into the

Gaza Strip last week and launching wave after wave of air raids after nightfall.

And in a dramatic new warning to the embattled Palestinian administration, helicopter gunships fired on the office in Gaza overnight of Hamas premier Ismail Haniya, setting the building ablaze.

"It's an attack against a Palestinian symbol," said Haniya, who was not in the office at the time.

"We ask the international community and the Arab League to take its responsibilities towards our people and intervene" to end what he called Israel's "insane policy."

Abbas, inspecting the damage done to the prime minister's office, lashed out at Israel.

"Destroying institutions for the Palestinian people, targeting a power plant or the office of prime minister Haniya are truly criminal operations," he said of Israel's five-day aerial campaign against Gaza.

Israel made clear it was deliberately targeting the government of Hamas, which took office in March but is dismissed as a terror group by Israel and the West.

Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres warned that Israel was perfectly prepared to put on trial the Hamas officials in its custody.

"They will be put to trial and they will be accused of participating, supporting terroristic acts against the civilian government," he told CNN.

Israel has rejected outright the demands of militant groups which seized Shalit in a deadly attack on an army post on the Gaza border on June 25 and are now seeking the release of Palestinian prisoners.

It has also threatened to strike at Hamas leaders, including those based in Damascus, raising fears of a regional escalation of the worst crisis in the Middle East since Hamas came to power and Olmert took the helm in Israel.

"My government has instructed the IDF (army) and the security establishment to do everything in order to bring Gilad back home... and when I say everything, I mean everything," Olmert told the weekly cabinet meeting.

The international community has issued urgent appeals for restraint on both sides to ensure the standoff does not spread across the region, while US President George W. Bush said the release of the soldier was "key" to ending the crisis.

In Cairo, Arab League secretary general Amr Mussa criticized the "paralysis" of the UN Security Council, charging that Arab efforts to end the standoff "have come to nothing because of the international body's slowness to act."

Witnesses said at least one Israeli missile fired from a helicopter gunship struck Haniya's office shortly before 2:00 am (2300 GMT Saturday), sparking a blaze swiftly doused by a team of Palestinian firefighters.

A second air strike in the northern Gaza Strip town of Jabaliya killed a member of the Hamas armed wing and wounded another.

The Ezzedine Brigades were responsible for the most spectacular suicide bombings in Israel over the last decade although it has not carried out any such attacks for more than a year.

A Palestinian security official said one of the attacks targeted a school run by the Islamist movement, which operates a social welfare wing in the impoverished Gaza Strip. The Israeli military denied a school was hit.

A senior official from Abbas's office had warned Saturday that Haniya's life could be on the line if a solution were not reached soon.

Israel last week hit the Hamas-run interior ministry in Gaza, detained scores of Hamas members in the occupied West Bank including eight ministers and more than 20 lawmakers, and revoked the Jerusalem residency of four others.

Haniya carried out an emergency reshuffle Sunday to replace the detained ministers.

Israel has also issued warnings to archfoe Syria over its harbouring of Hamas leaders, including political supremo Khaled Meshaal, and in a show of force last week its warplanes buzzed a Mediterranean residence of President Bashar al-Assad.

With the threat of a fullscale Israeli ground offensive looming, already impoverished residents of Gaza, one of the most densely populated areas on the planet with a population of 1.4 million, are grappling with shortages of food, fuel and electricity.

But Israel temporarily opened a border crossing to allow in supplies of humanitarian supplies including food, and it resumed pumping fuel.

About 5,000 troops and columns of Israeli tanks are poised on the Gaza border in the largest Israeli military operation since it pulled out of the tiny coastal territory last September, ending a 38-year presence. But it has held off so far from sending in more troops from the north.

The head of Israel's domestic security agency Shin Beth predicted that the crisis could drag on for months.

"We need to be patient. There is no miracle solution. Solving the affair could take several months," Yuval Diskin warned the weekly cabinet meeting Sunday, Israeli media reported.