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Israel Arrests Dozens of Hamas Lawmakers and Ministers as Assault on Gaza Widens

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Israel has arrested dozens of lawmakers and ministers from the ruling Palestinian party Hamas as it continues its military assault to recover a captured soldier. Nearly half of the Gaza Strip remains without power following Israeli air strikes that knocked out a main power station. We go to Gaza to get a report from Chris McGreal of the London Guardian. [includes rush transcript]

Israel has arrested dozens of lawmakers and ministers from the ruling Palestinian party Hamas as it continues its operation to recover a captured soldier. The soldier, Corporal Gilad Shalit, was captured Sunday in a Palestinian operation on an Israeli military outpost near Gaza. The Israeli government says it holds Hamas directly responsible for Shalit’s life. It has rejected his captor’s demands for the release of all Palestinian females and Palestinians below the age of eighteen in Israeli prisons. An Israeli cabinet minister said Syria-based Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal is a target for assassination. And in a warning to the Syrian government, Israel sent warplanes to fly over a home belonging to Syrian President Bashar Assad. A Hamas official said Israel is carrying out an “open war against the Palestinian government and people,” and vowed retaliation.

Meanwhile, nearly half of the Gaza Strip remains without power following Israeli air strikes that knocked out a main power station. Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas said the attack on Gaza’s infrastructure amounts to “collective punishment and a crime against humanity.” Israeli warplanes have dropped leaflets on the village of Beit Hanoun and parts of Gaza warning residents the army will begin striking populated areas. IDF officials said they expect thousands of people to begin fleeing their homes as early as today. In Washington, the Bush administration urged Israel to use restraint but refused to criticize the current siege. Meanwhile, the IDF announced it has recovered the body of eighteen-year old West Bank settler Eliyahu Asheri. Asheri’s captors had threatened to take his life unless Israel halted its reinvasion of the Gaza Strip.

  • Chris McGreal, reporter for the Guardian of London. He joins us on the line from Gaza.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: For the latest on the current siege, we go to Gaza. We’re joined by Chris McGreal, reporter for the Guardian of London. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Chris.

CHRIS McGREAL: Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what the latest situation is in Gaza?

CHRIS McGREAL: Well, it’s quite quiet during the day. Most of the Israeli action tends to come at night. As you mentioned, there was the dropping of the leaflets over Beit Hanoun and Beit Lahiya last night, and I was there this morning. Many people are expecting an Israeli army assault. The tanks and troops are just the other side of the border, the fence. And Beit Hanoun is quite close to the fence, just a couple of kilometers away, and they have been subject to numerous Israeli incursions over the years, and they’re fully expecting another one.

The situation in the south, which is where the missing corporal is believed to be held, has also been relatively quiet. The army took over, in the early hours of yesterday, the disused international airport there and has been sitting on the edge of Rafah and Khan Younis refugee camps, which are strongholds of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. But we’re getting a sense from the military and from movements, the other side of the fence, that if this corporal is not found or released by nightfall tonight, that probably within the next 24 hours the army will step up its assault on Gaza.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And the impact on the Palestinians of the arrests of all of these lawmakers by Israel in the last day?

CHRIS McGREAL: Well, the Israelis are characterizing this as a legitimate operation to pick up men that they argue are members of a terrorist organization that have been responsible for repeated attacks on Israel. But amongst ordinary Palestinians, there’s little doubt in their minds that there are two purposes to this. One is that, effectively, Israel is taking its own hostages in return for the missing corporal and that also many Palestinians think that Israel has taken his capture as a means to try and dismantle the Hamas government. This may or may not be the case, but certainly that’s a very popular view on the streets at the moment following the announcement of these arrests.

AMY GOODMAN: You spoke to the head of the power plant that the Israeli military bombed?

CHRIS McGREAL: Yes, I did, yesterday. Well, the operations manager.

AMY GOODMAN: And what’s the situation? When will they get power back?

CHRIS McGREAL: Well, power’s being — Israel provides about 40% of the power in the Gaza Strip. And what’s happened at the moment is that’s essentially being redistributed, so each area is getting power for a few hours today. It’s been on and off a lot.

The power plant — and there’s only one main power plant run by the Palestinians — that provided about 60%. It had six transformers. They were each hit by a single missile each. And they are completely destroyed. The operations manager said that it would take probably three to six months to get back online, $4 million to $7 million to buy new transformers from Sweden, which had provided the original ones. And then it would take some time and actually a lot more money to get them up and running again. And that’s if Israel allows the transformers to be imported.

The basic sense is that the power plant’s completely knocked out for several months. And now they’re looking for ways around how they keep sufficient amounts of electricity going to keep everybody happy, particularly to be able to continue to provide water at least some of the day to the residents of Gaza. There’s 1.4 million people here.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And the logic of bombing a power plant in an effort to rescue a hostage? Israel has been saying that they expect thousands of Gazan residents to leave as a result of this. Your sense of this?

CHRIS McGREAL: Well, what they’re expecting — there’s two separate things. They’re expecting people to leave the towns Beit Hanoun and Beit Lahiya after the leaflet drop and ahead of what looks like a looming Israeli army incursion, at the very least into Beit Hanoun, which is an area quite a lot of Kassam rockets have fired from into Israel.

The logic behind the attack on the power plant is harder to pin down. The army has consistently said it’s a legitimate military objective in getting the missing corporal released, but if you try and ask them how and for some specifics, they’re very vague. In short, from comments made by the Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and by the army itself in the end, it really boils down to the idea of pressuring the general Palestinian population, hoping that it will put pressure on the ordinary — on the militant groups that are holding the abducted soldier. Human rights groups, of course, are saying this amounts to collective punishment and is therefore illegal under the Geneva Convention.

AMY GOODMAN: Chris McGreal, we’re going to leave it there. I want to thank you very much for being with us. Reporter from the London Guardian, speaking to us from Gaza.

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