The crisis over the kidnapped Israeli soldier escalated on Wednesday as Israeli troops started shelling the northern Gaza Strip in apparent preparation for a second incursion in as many days.
The army said four fighter aircraft had flown over the palace of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, near the coastal town of Latakia.
Syria called the Israeli action a “provocation” and said it had opened fire on the aircraft as they breached Syrian airspace. An Israeli military spokeswoman said that the fly-by constituted a warning to Syria, which Israel accuses of supporting militant Hamas leaders.
Israeli politicians have claimed that Khaled Meshaal, the Damascus-based Hamas leader, ordered Sunday’s attack in which the soldier was kidnapped and two others were killed. Some Israeli officials have threatened to target Mr Meshaal in an assassination.
Moussa Abou Marzouk, Mr Meshaal’s deputy, denied that the action was ordered from Damascus. But he warned that the largest ground forces operation in Gaza since Israel withdrew from the territory almost a year ago was jeopardising the safety of the soldier. He suggested that the 19-year-old corporal would only be freed in exchange for Palestinians in Israeli jails.
“The feeling of the people and of the militants is to give him back but in return for Palestinian prisoners,” Mr Abou Marzouk told the FT, speaking by telephone from Damascus. “The choice now is with Israel, they take responsibility for the life of the soldier.”
Earlier, Israeli air strikes hit a power station in Gaza as well as bridges connecting the north and the south of the strip and a Hamas training camp. Tanks and ground forces consolidated positions in the south, which they had entered overnight.
Israel said its actions were aimed at freeing Corporal Gilad Shalit. “We have no intention of recapturing the Gaza Strip. We have no intention of staying there,” said Ehud Olmert, the prime minister. But Palestinian officials accused Israel of collective punishment.
The situation has been further complicated by claims of the kidnapping of two more Israelis, one of them a young settler in the West Bank who has been missing for several days. The Israeli authorities have not yet officially acknowledged his abduction.
The Fatah-affiliated Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades on Wednesday said it was also holding a 62-year-old man from central Israel, who appeared to be the same person the police was listing as missing.
The crisis has overshadowed a vital agreement reached between Hamas and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, on Tuesday that includes an implicit Hamas acceptance of a two-state solution to the Middle East conflict.
A copy released by Hamas on Wednesday refers to the Palestinian goal of a state on all the land occupied in 1967, including Arab East Jerusalem, and to the right of return of Palestinian refugees.
It implicitly recognises the 2002 Arab peace initiative, which called for a two-state solution. But it also underlines the right to resistance in the territories that were occupied in 1967, and ambiguous additions by the Islamist group allowing it to claim it has not bowed to international pressure nor actually recognised Israel.
Israel has dismissed the document as double-speak but the European Union has welcomed the agreement, saying it was the beginning of a process.Mr Abou Marzouk confirmed that the Damascus leadership had agreed to the document, expressing hope that it would change the international attitude towards the Palestinian government, which has been denied direct financial assistance.