GAZA CITY, 29 June 2006 � Vowing to use �extreme measures�, thousands of Israeli troops, backed by warplanes and tanks, invaded the Gaza Strip yesterday and Israeli warplanes buzzed the seaside home of Syria�s president to pressure Palestinians to free a kidnapped Israeli soldier.
Fighter jets also knocked out electricity and water supplies for most of the 1.3 million residents of the Gaza Strip. Three bridges were also destroyed.
Israeli military officials said on condition of anonymity that warplanes flew low over the summer palace of Syrian President Bashar Assad in the Mediterranean port city of Latakia because he has sheltered Hamas leaders, whom Israel blames for masterminding the kidnapping. There was no reaction from Syria.
Palestinians warned the offensive would only trigger more bloodshed, with the Hamas-led government slamming it as �military madness� and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas branding it collective punishment and a crime against humanity.
It was the first major ground incursion into Gaza since Israel pulled settlers and troops from the impoverished coastal strip last year in a highly controversial operation that ended a 38-year occupation.
�We decided to use extreme means to bring Gilad (Shalit) home and we have no intention of reoccupying the Gaza Strip,� Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was quoted as saying by public radio referring to the 19-year-old conscript.
�Last night�s operation will continue. No one who is involved in terror will be immune. We have one central goal: to bring Gilad home.� Much of Gaza was plunged into darkness after warplanes waged nighttime strikes.
The White House said Israel had the right to defend itself but that it should avoid �unnecessary destruction� of Palestinian civilian infrastructure.
�Israel has the right to defend itself and the lives of its citizens,� White House spokesman Tony Snow said, calling for Shalit�s immediate release.
�In any actions the government of Israel may undertake, the United States urges that it ensure that innocent civilians are not harmed and also that it avoid the unnecessary destruction of property and infrastructure,� he said.
Troops in tanks, armored cars and bulldozers with lights blazing rolled several kilometers into southern Gaza where the missing serviceman was believed to be held, pushing into the disused international airport near Rafah.
Public Security Minister Avi Dichter even issued a direct threat to kill Hamas chiefs in Syria, the base of the movement�s political supremo Khaled Mashaal, who escaped a Mossad attempt on his life in Amman in 1997.
He said Israel had issued warnings to Syria about the presence of Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders in Damascus but that they were disregarded. �This therefore gives Israel full permission to attack these assassins.�
No casualties were reported in the Gaza incursion, which followed intensive efforts to free Shalit after his seizure in an attack Sunday that killed two soldiers and was claimed by three groups including fighters loyal to Hamas.
Israel later yesterday carried out a raid on a Hamas training camp in Rafah. No casualties were reported but two Palestinians were killed, including a one-year-old girl, when a grenade accidentally exploded in nearby Khan Younis, medical and security sources said.
Armed groups have vowed not to release the soldier until all Palestinian women and children are freed from Israeli jails, a demand rejected by Olmert who then ordered columns of tanks and a force of about 5,000 troops to mass on the Gaza border.
But a Palestinian Foreign Ministry spokesman said his government was seeking a deal for the soldier�s release in exchange for freeing Palestinian prisoners.
�We have sent letters to the foreign ministries of Arab governments asking them to support a negotiated solution that includes the exchange of Palestinian detainees imprisoned by the Israeli occupation for the kidnapped Israeli soldier,� Taher Nunu said. The situation was further complicated when an armed Palestinian group claiming to hold the soldier also threatened to kill a Jewish settler it said it had abducted in the occupied West Bank.
�Unless the aggression stops, we will kill the settler,� said a representative of the Popular Resistance Committees, which claimed Sunday�s attack along with the armed wing of Hamas and another group.
The Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an offshoot of the moderate Fatah faction, said it had kidnapped another Israeli settler, a 62-year-old man, although it was not possible immediately to confirm the report.
Amnesty International called for all hostages to be released and for �an end to the wanton destruction and collective punishment being carried out by Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip.�
A statement said �destruction of three bridges and electricity networks ... have left half the population of the Gaza Strip without electricity and have reportedly also adversely affected the supply of water.� The soldier�s abduction has triggered the worst Middle East crisis since Hamas took office in March after an election win that sent shockwaves throughout Israel and the West.
It also presented the first major security challenge for Olmert since he took office in May pledging to unilaterally redraw the map of Israel even without negotiations with the Palestinians.
Egypt, France and the Vatican, as well as the United States, had sought to exert pressure on the Palestinians to hand over the soldier.
Hamas held an urgent Palestinian Cabinet meeting in a bid to find a way out of the standoff, with Deputy Prime Minister Nasserdine Al-Shaer calling on the kidnappers to �preserve his life.�
Government spokesman Ghazi Hamad was quoted as saying by the official WAFA news agency that the offensive was unjustified �military madness� and accused Israel of seeking to cause �chaos and provoke a new bloody conflict.�
Sunday�s attack, which saw gunmen tunnel their way into Israel in an assault that has raised questions over possible military and intelligence failings, was the deadliest in the area since Israel�s pullout from Gaza.
Tensions have long been mounting, with Israel and the West both financially and politically boycotting Hamas as a terror group, plunging the territories into a deep crisis.
Past history of soldiers abducted at the hands of Palestinians bodes ill for Shalit, with all nine such previous cases ending in death.
Meanwhile, Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh yesterday accused Israel of worsening the crisis over the abduction by sending troops and tanks into the Gaza Strip.
�We stress that the occupation must stop the military escalation in order not to complicate the situation and worsen the crisis,� Haniyeh told Reuters, making his first public remarks on Sunday�s kidnapping.
�We are following the existing crisis relating to the missing soldier ... We hope that this case will be concluded in a suitable way.�
Haniyeh said he had urged the immediate intervention of the United Nations Security Council and also asked the Arab League to convene an urgent meeting to discuss the crisis.
� With input from agencies