Hamas decries Israeli missile attack on prime minister's office

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The Independent Online

Israel is expected to step up pressure on the Hamas leadership to secure the release of Cpl Gilad Shalit after launching a helicopter missile attack on the office of the Palestinian Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyeh.

The strike on Mr Haniyeh's office ­ described as a "true criminal act" by the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas ­ was intended to reinforce Israel's threat to target ministers until the corporal is released.

"No one will go unpunished," Ehud Olmert, the Israeli Prime Minister, said yesterday. Mr Olmert also even appeared to hint at the possibility of troops moving into Gaza to snatch leading Hamas figures here, as it detained 63 Hamas ministers and parliamentarians in the West Bank last week. "I do not promise that the arrests of senior Hamas figures will take place only in Judea and Samaria [West Bank]," he told the cabinet.

The Defence Minister, Amir Peretz, said Israel would keep its forces in Gaza for a "very short" time, but Yuval Diskin, the head of the domestic intelligence agency Shin Bet, told ministers that the hostage crisis might take months to resolve, adding: "We have to take a deep breath ... There is no magic solution."

Israel has restored supplies of fuel, including diesel, petrol, kerosene and cooking gas, from the Nahal Oz depot outside Gaza, a move which diplomats attributed at least in part to US pressure, five days after cutting it off as part of its response to the kidnapping of Cpl Shalit, 19, last week. At the same time it reopened the Karni crossing into Gaza from Israel to some lorries carrying humanitarian and medical goods. Christer Nordal, the deputy director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, said the agency was "very pleased" at the restoration of fuel supplies, which should go a long way to lifting the threat of a collapse of water, sewerage and medical services.

This had been threatened because of a lack of fuel to power emergency generators after the destruction of the six transformers at Gaza's only power station. The fuel could also be used to mobilise generators to draw supplies from wells in the Nusseirat and Bureij refugee camps, which were cut off by a missile strike on a pipeline last week.

But Mr Nordal said UNRWA had been "disappointed" at Israel's refusal to let through 400 dry food and milk powder containers stranded at the port of Ashdod. And he warned the agency was fearful of a crisis posed by the displacement of up to 25,000 civilians if Israel carries out a full-scale ground incursion into northern Gaza.

There were no concrete signs that such an incursion was imminent last night. However, despite continued talk by Palestinian officials of "near deadlock" in diplomatic efforts to secure Cpl Shalit's release, a ministerial colleague, Roni Bar-On, said Mr Olmert had presaged further air strikes and use of "sonic booms" by telling the Israeli cabinet that he had instructed the army "to make sure no one sleeps at night in Gaza".

Late last night the army appeared to making good on that command, with an Israeli helicopter gunship firing a missile into a Gaza building said to be used by militants.