Israel Accused of Plan to Topple Hamas

The Palestinian premier says the Gaza incursion is a premeditated bid to `hijack the government.'

By Laura King

Los Angeles Times

July 1, 2006

GAZA CITY — As Israeli forces pounded the Gaza Strip with artillery fire and airstrikes, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh on Friday accused Israel of deliberately trying to topple his government.

"This total war is proof of a premeditated plan," said Haniyeh, who is also a senior leader of Hamas, the Islamist group that took power three months ago after winning Palestinian parliamentary elections.

Israel has said Haniyeh and other Hamas political leaders could be targeted for assassination if an Israeli soldier captured Sunday by Hamas-affiliated militant groups is not freed.

Haniyeh spoke in a sermon at a mosque in Gaza City, his first public appearance since Israel sent troops and tanks into southern Gaza early Wednesday. He denounced Israel's roundup Thursday of more than two dozen Palestinian officials.

"When they kidnapped the ministers, they meant to hijack the government," he said. "We say we will not be hijacked, and the government will not fall."

Listeners responded with calls of "God is great!"

Israeli tanks remained poised on Gaza's northern border but held off on a push into the area, which has been heavily fortified by Palestinian militants. Egyptian mediators reportedly sought more time to try to free the 19-year-old soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, through diplomacy.

Early today, the three militant factions that claim to be holding Shalit issued a new demand: the release of 1,000 Palestinians from Israeli jails and an end to the Gaza assault.

Israel has refused previous demands for the release of female and minor prisoners in exchange for the tank gunner.

The government has carried out prisoner swaps in the past, however, and a poll published Friday in the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot indicated that more than half of those surveyed supported conducting negotiations for Shalit's release.

The incursion, Israel's first large-scale ground offensive in Gaza since it unilaterally withdrew troops and Jewish settlers from the coastal strip last summer, has drawn a mixed international response.

The United States and other Western nations have urged that the soldier be freed unconditionally, but several human rights organizations have sharply questioned the need for Israel to strike at installations such as the territory's main electrical transformer, bombed from the air in the early hours of the incursion.

The International Committee of the Red Cross on Friday urged Israel to lift its blockade of Gaza to allow shipments of food and medicine. Israel said it was considering reopening the main commercial crossing at Karni.

The Palestinians have asked the United Nations Security Council to demand a halt to the offensive, and the council convened an emergency session on the issue at the request of Qatar.

Palestinian mission chief Riyad Mansour called Israel's actions a huge crime against humanity that was endangering the 1.3 million Palestinians in Gaza.

"The situation is extremely grave, and there is a lack of food, lack of medicine, of course, there is no electricity … there is a serious shortage of water."

U.S. Ambassador John R. Bolton said that the Security Council should "tread cautiously" to avoid exacerbating tensions, trying to deflect a resolution condemning Israel.

No civilians have been reported killed in the incursion, though several have been wounded. One militant died of wounds from an Israeli airstrike.

Stepping up the pressure on the Hamas-run government, Israeli officials Friday revoked the Jerusalem residency permits of four senior Hamas officials. The coveted residency status also allows holders to travel freely within Israel.

Since the standoff over the captured soldier began, Israel has drawn no distinction between elected Hamas officials and the group's military wing, one of the factions responsible for Shalit's abduction.

Haniyeh and other senior Hamas officials have been taking precautions reminiscent of those during an Israeli campaign of "targeted killings" during 2003 and 2004, when the entire Hamas leadership, including the group's spiritual mentor and founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin, were killed in airstrikes.

Haniyeh's aides refused to disclose until the last minute whether he would deliver a sermon as he usually does on Friday, the Muslim sabbath, and a dummy convoy left his home before the real one departed.

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Times staff writer Maggie Farley at the United Nations contributed to this report.