Hamas leaders arrested, pursues Gaza campaign
GAZA, June 29: Israel today seized Hamas cabinet ministers in the occupied West Bank as it prepared to broaden a military offensive into the northern Gaza Strip, pressuring Palestinian militants to release a kidnapped soldier.
Hundreds of gunmen wielding automatic rifles and anti-tank weapons took up positions waiting for Israeli forces to open a second Gaza front in the north, a day after tanks and infantry pushed into the southern part of the territory.
A Palestinian security officer said he saw several Israeli tanks roll into northern Gaza before dawn.
His account was disputed by an Israeli military spokeswoman who said troops were not yet deployed to begin ground operations in the area, where militants have been launching daily rocket attacks on southern Israel.
In preparation for the offensive, Israel dropped leaflets on northern Gaza, urging residents to avoid areas its troops may target.
In a night-time blitz, Israeli troops seized Finance Minister Omar Abdel-Razeq and eight other cabinet members, along with nearly 20 legislators of the governing Islamist group in operations across the West Bank, Palestinian officials said.
Israel said 64 Hamas officials in all were taken into custody in the West Bank operation.
Israel's Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said the arrests were ''due to the fact that Hamas over the last few weeks has escalated terror attacks against Israel.'' Jacob Dalal, an army spokesman, said: ''They are not being used as bargaining chips. These are people with terrorist records, with allegations and charges pending against them.'' Israel, which quit the Gaza Strip nearly a year ago, has repeatedly said it holds Hamas responsible for the abduction of Corporal Gilad Shalit in a cross-border raid on Sunday and has demanded it ensure his safe return or suffer the consequences.