June 30, 2006 in Nation/World

Israeli planes shell Palestinian ministry

Ravi Nessman Associated Press
Associated Press photo

An Israeli soldier runs to reload An Israeli mobile artillery piece which is firing toward the Gaza Strip at a position near Kibbutz Nahal Oz, just outside the northern Gaza Strip, on Thursday.
(Full-size photo)

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Israeli warplanes struck the Palestinian Interior Ministry early today, setting it ablaze as Arab leaders tried to forge a deal that would halt the Israeli offensive and free a 19-year-old soldier held by gunmen allied with the ruling Islamic Hamas.

The bombing was one of more than a dozen across the Gaza Strip after midnight, though Israel called off a planned ground invasion of northern Gaza on Thursday in order to give diplomacy another chance.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said militants agreed to a conditional release of the kidnapped soldier but that Israel had yet to accept their terms, which he did not specify. Israel said it was not familiar with any such offer.

No one was hurt in the strike on the Interior Ministry in downtown Gaza City. The Israeli military said the ministry office, controlled by Hamas, was “a meeting place to plan and direct terror activity.” The Interior Ministry is nominally in charge of Palestinian security forces, though moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas removed most of its authority.

Israeli warplanes also hit a Fatah office as well as roads and open fields. During the day, aircraft and artillery pounded sites across the coastal strip, including suspected weapons factories, an electrical transformer and militant training camps.

A strike at a Hamas facility near the Gaza beach ignited a fire and set off explosives, witnesses said. Another air attack, in the southern Gaza town of Rafah, set an intelligence office on fire, Palestinian security officials said.

Casualties began to mount. The local leader of Islamic Jihad, Mohammed Abdel Al, 25, died early Friday of wounds he suffered an Israeli airstrike in Rafah, hospital officials said, and three Fatah-affiliated gunmen were wounded in a gun battle in the Jebaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza.

Earlier, a 5-year-old girl was wounded in an airstrike in northern Gaza, the first casualty in more than two days of military action that began with a ground invasion of southern Gaza. Doctors said her wounds were not life-threatening.

On Gaza’s southern border, hundreds of Palestinian and Egyptian police formed human cordons to block Palestinians trying to escape into Egypt after militants blasted a hole in a cement wall near the crossing.

Abbas, a moderate, met with Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas and spoke twice with Mubarak to try to end the crisis, an Abbas aide said.

In remarks published today, Mubarak told the pro-government Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram that “Egyptian contacts with several Hamas leaders resulted in preliminary, positive results in the shape of a conditional agreement to hand over the Israeli soldier as soon as possible to avoid an escalation. But agreement on this has not yet been reached with the Israeli side.”

An Israeli Foreign Ministry official said he had not heard of the offer and would not comment. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, repeated Israel’s policy of refusing to negotiate with the militants and demanding the soldier’s unconditional release.

Earlier, Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz said significant diplomatic developments were possible, though he did not indicate there had been a breakthrough.

“Right now, our thoughts are focused on the unconditional liberation of the kidnapped soldier,” he said. Israel said the crisis will end when Cpl. Gilad Shalit is released.

On Thursday, Israel decided to delay a further offensive into northern Gaza at Egypt’s request, an Israeli official said on condition of anonymity because of the secrecy of the diplomacy.

Anger flared across the Middle East over Israel’s assault, and many Arabs criticized their governments for not aiding the Palestinians. The Egyptian government’s top rival, the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, urged Egyptians to gather at pro-Palestinian demonstrations today, the Muslim Sabbath.

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