Syria backs Hamas despite renewed Israeli threat
DAMASCUS, June 29 (Reuters) Syria will stick by Hamas although it expects Israel to increase pressure on Damascus to abandon support for the Palestinian group, Syrian officials and a member of the movement's exiled leadership said today.
''The Israelis know that Hamas' presence in Syria is limited to offices. If they cannot stomach this then let Hamas leaders return to their homeland. We and Hamas will be pleased,'' said one Syrian official, who asked not to be identified.
Israeli warplanes penetrated Syrian airspace yesterday, flying over a presidential palace to warn Syria against hosting and supporting Palestinian militant groups, including Hamas.
''The Israelis are in crisis and they are trying to get out of it by sending us messages. It won't work,'' the official said.
The armed wing of Hamas, the Izz el-Deen al-Qassam Brigades, was among three factions which took part in a cross-border raid into Israel from Gaza in which a soldier was seized on Sunday.
Hamas said the operation was in response to Israeli attacks on Gaza that killed Palestinian civilians. Its armed wing has not said it is holding the soldier.
Israel's forces entered southern Gaza yesterday to put pressure on militants to release an abducted soldier.
Several high-level Hamas members, including the group's most prominent leader Khaled Meshaal, live in Damascus.
Syria's secular government has resisted for years pressure by the United States, Israel's chief ally, to expel them and close the Muslim group's offices.
Israel has threatened to assassinate exiled Hamas officials, including Meshaal, unless the abducted soldier is freed.
INTERNAL ISSUE Fayez Sayegh, director of Syrian Radio and Television, said any pressure Syria applies on Hamas' exiled leaders to solve the captured soldier episode would be futile.
''Syria cannot interfere because this was an internal Palestinian operation by popular resistance movements who make their own decisions as they go,'' Sayegh said.
Israel, which is preparing to expand a military offensive on Gaza to try and rescue the soldier, arrested one-third of the Hamas-led Palestinian cabinet today.
A member of Syria's ruling Baath Party said the scale of the Israeli response showed it wants to escalate regional tension.
''Israel didn't even contemplate a prisoners swap. They leave Syria no option but to support Hamas to the hilt,'' he said.
Mohammad Nazzal, a Hamas politburo member, said the exiled leadership had nothing to do with Sunday's raid by Palestinian militants in which the soldier was seized. He said the decision on what to do with the captive was up to the groups holding him.
''We follow Palestinian sentiment, which does not want the captive to be handed over without gains for the Palestinian people, such as releasing the largest number of prisoners and detainees in Israeli jails,'' Nazzal said in Damascus.
''Syria has not exerted pressure on us because it knows Hamas is not militarily present here and that military operations are planned, supervised and conducted from the inside.'' Reuters SHR RS2142