Israel Builds Pressure on Militants to Release Soldier
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
The Israeli army is firing artillery into the northern Gaza Strip, where it's the middle of the night. Late last night, armored troops moved into a corner of southern Gaza. Israeli fighter jets also buzzed the summer home of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad today, escalating regional tension. Israel says all of this is aimed at winning the return of a captured Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit. And Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is warning of a larger scale offensive in Gaza if Shalit is not released.
NPR's Eric Westervelt is in Gaza and joins us now. Eric, does tonight's artillery fire in the north suggest that the Israeli operation is about to expand?
ERIC WESTERVELT reporting:
Well, Michele, there's no indications, really, ground forces have yet moved into the north, but residents there that I've spoke with are bracing for that. The artillery fire is mostly into open areas, farm fields and the like, next to the residential areas. The shelling and any potential push into the north later on really has less to do with efforts to free this captured Israeli soldier.
It's aimed mostly at trying to stop the launching of Qassams, these homemade rockets that are fired nearly everyday at towns in southern Israel. Any ground offensive in the north is expected to try to neutralize these launch sites and take out any of these makeshift basement factories where militants produce these rockets.
Also today, I witnessed a fairly intense artillery barrage in the south, on the outskirts of Rafah, not far from this defunct airport where Israeli forces pushed into last night. No hospitals were reporting any casualties or injuries from shelling north or south.
NORRIS: And in that offensive last night, the air strikes destroyed bridges and knocked out electrical power to much of Gaza. How are residents there coping?
WESTERVELT: Yeah, we could see Gaza's only power plant on fire as we drove south toward Rafah last night. That air strike cut off electricity to 700,000 people here, about half the people in the Gaza strip. Several bridges were also knocked out, disrupting traffic north to south. President Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority leader, called the targeting of civilian infrastructure “a crime against humanity.”
Engineers say it could take six, eight months before they finish any repair work on the power plant. I think Gaza residents are a little bit defiant. They're used to hard times, but they're also frustrated and angry. They're stocking up on candles and flashlights and there are worries that the water system could be harmed by the power outages as pumps are affected. But most Gaza hospitals, I should say, have powerful back up generators, so there's been no interruption of health care so far.
NORRIS: Eric, we mentioned that Israeli fighter jets buzzed the Syrian president's home. What's Syria's connection to that captured Israeli soldier?
WESTERVELT: Well, Khaled Mashaal, the exiled leader of Hamas, lives in Syria and Israel charges that Syrian President Assad funds, supports and directly helps Hamas. Hamas's armed wing is alleged to have orchestrated, and its members certainly took part in, last weekend's elaborate attack on an Israeli border post that killed two soldiers and led to the capture of Corporal Shalit.
Unconfirmed reports on state run Syrian TV say Syrian air defenses fired back at the Israeli planes and the information minister there denounced the over flight as a provocative act. The flyover by the way, produced intense, earth-shaking sonic booms, and Israeli jets did the same thing here across the Gaza Strip earlier today.
NORRIS: Just quickly Eric, a spokesman for the Hamas-led government said the soldier would be freed only as part of prisoner exchange. What's the Israeli reaction to that?
WESTERVELT: Right, Israel said repeatedly they won't talk of any prisoner swap or negotiations and they did so again today. They say they want their soldier released unconditionally, Michele.
NORRIS: That was NPR's Eric Westervelt in Gaza.