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Israel Makes Another Airstrike on Palestinian Interior Ministry

Civilians are reportedly injured in the Gaza City attack. Olmert says a rocket fired by militants escalates the tension; retaliation is considered.

July 05, 2006|Ken Ellingwood and Laura King | Times Staff Writers

GAZA CITY — Israeli missiles flattened a wing of the Hamas-run Palestinian Interior Ministry here today, in the latest wave of airstrikes meant to pressure Palestinian militants into freeing a captive Israeli soldier.

Palestinians said several civilians were injured in the massive predawn blast at the building, which also was hit last week.

Israel, meanwhile, weighed retaliation for the Palestinians' firing of a rocket into the coastal city of Ashkelon, the first such strike in a large Israeli city. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert described the attack as a severe escalation.

Tightening a siege of the Gaza Strip, Israeli troops and armor Tuesday seized the Palestinian side of the main crossing point into the coastal territory.

The incursion at the Erez crossing came hours after the expiration of a deadline set by Palestinian militants for concessions in exchange for the release of the captured soldier.

Israel has refused demands that it free more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners to gain the soldier's freedom, but diplomatic attempts to resolve the standoff continued.

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, a senior Hamas official, told a weekly Cabinet meeting that "the language of wisdom must be used to end this incident." He praised the efforts of Egyptian mediators.

Israel holds Haniyeh's government responsible for the conflict over the abduction of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, 19, even though he and other Hamas-allied government officials insist that they had no advance knowledge of the June 25 raid by three militant factions that resulted in Shalit's capture.

Olmert, addressing a gathering of businesspeople in southern Israel, vowed anew that the government would take sweeping vengeance if any harm befell the soldier.

"We will strike all the elements of terror; whoever hurts citizens of the state of Israel will not be immune," the prime minister said.

Olmert repeated his refusal to strike a deal to bring about Shalit's release, saying that would encourage more abductions.

The Israeli military said soldiers and armor moved across the frontier at Erez to search for tunnels, in what it described as a pinpoint operation rather than part of a potential large-scale offensive in the north of Gaza.

At nightfall, troops and tanks were still on the Palestinian side of the frontier. The military did not say when it expected the crossing to be reopened.

The Erez crossing is mainly used by diplomats, journalists and aid workers. Thousands of Palestinian workers once passed through there daily to go to jobs in Israel, but their numbers were sharply curtailed even before the current confrontation.

A small Israeli contingent carried out a similar search operation near the northern Gaza village of Beit Hanoun, looking for tunnel openings and land mines, military officials said.

A much larger Israeli force held a position at the idled Palestinian airport in the southern Gaza Strip, near Rafah. That is the area where Shalit is thought to have been taken after his capture in a cross-border raid and killed two other soldiers.

Shalit's fate remained unknown after Israel rejected the 6 a.m. Tuesday deadline to begin releasing Palestinian prisoners. A spokesman for the Islamic Army, one of the three militant factions that claimed to have abducted the soldier, said the captors would consider his case "closed" and withhold any further information about his condition.

Later Tuesday, the spokesman, who goes by the nom de guerre of Abu Muthanna, said the abductors would not kill Shalit "because we are Muslims and the principles of Islamic law guide us to treat prisoners with respect and not to kill them."

The groups, including the military wing of Hamas, had warned in a statement Monday that Israel would face "future consequences" if it did not accede to the demands.

In addition to the incursion into southern Gaza last week, Israel has heavily shelled the northern Gaza Strip and carried out airstrikes against numerous sites. An attack on a power station has forced the rationing of electricity and created hours-long outages throughout the territory. Other targets included Haniyeh's office, which was wrecked by a missile strike early Sunday.

Despite the stepped-up military activities, the Israeli army said Palestinian militants fired at least seven rockets toward southern Israel on Tuesday. One landed on a high school campus in Ashkelon, six miles to the north, a relatively long distance for the crude Kassam rockets militants normally fire. Army explosives experts were investigating to determine whether it was another type of projectile.

In another development Tuesday, Israeli and Palestinian rights groups asked Israel's Supreme Court to ban the military's practice of setting off deafening sonic booms over Gaza. Since the offensive began last Wednesday, fighter jets have made frequent low-altitude flyovers, breaking the sound barrier, shattering windows and jangling nerves.

*

Ellingwood reported from Gaza City and King from Jerusalem.

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