Israeli planes attack Palestinian ministry as kidnap crisis deepens

GAZA CITY, June 30, 2006 (AFP) – Israel launched air raids in the Gaza Strip overnight in retaliation at the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier, setting the Palestinian interior ministry ablaze, witnesses and security sources said early Friday.

On the ground, three members of the armed Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, linked to Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas’s Fatah party, were injured in a shootout with Israeli troops near Jabaliya in northern Gaza, medical sources said.

A member of the radical armed group Islamic Jihad was seriously injured in a pre-dawn helicopter gunship strike in Rafah, in southern Gaza, medical and security sources said.

The body of a Jewish settler kidnapped by gunmen was also found dumped in the West Bank, adding to the tension in the worst crisis between Israel and the Palestinians since the radical Islamist movement Hamas took office in March.

"Israeli planes carried out a dozen raids in the Gaza Strip against the ministry, military training camps, roads and faction offices," a security source told AFP.

These included the first attack on a Palestinian ministry building since Israel launched its offensive in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday following the kidnapping of 19-year-old soldier Gilad Shalit.

The sharp upsurge in hostilities over the fate of Shalit sparked renewed international concern and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan led urgent calls for all sides to avoid further escalation.

Annan telephoned regional leaders to appeal for restraint to ensure the conflict did not spread, a call echoed by Washington.

"We hope that Israel, in trying to retrieve its soldier, will practise restraint and that both sides will practise restraint in trying to lower the temperature and develop a sense of security in the future," said White House spokesman Tony Snow.

"There’s pretty much unified international reaction, which is that Hamas needs to give back the Israeli soldier and needs to renounce terror and needs to do so immediately," he added.

Meeting in Moscow, foreign ministers of the G8 group of industrialized nations called on Israel to exercise the "utmost restraint".

Iran’s foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki meanwhile called for intervention from the UN Security Council.

Defence Minister Amir Peretz insisted that Israel, which has a force of about 5,000 troops massed on the border, had no intention of retaking Gaza.

"We have no intention of getting bogged down any more in the swamps of this cursed territory," he said.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said in comments published Friday that Hamas has agreed to secure the release of the kidnapped soldier, but only on conditions which Israel has already rejected.

An Israeli air force plane fired several times on the Palestinian interior ministry building in central Gaza City, setting the structure ablaze, witnesses told AFP.

A medical source at Gaza’s main hospital said the building was empty at the time and there were no casualties, but the building suffered serious damage, with the two top floors, including interior minister Said Siam’s office, hit.

Elsewhere witnesses said that an Israeli air strike had hit a Fatah office in central Gaza, also causing damage to a nearby mosque. Two training camps were also targeted by Israeli missiles.

In Beit Lahiya, in the northern Gaza Strip, an Israeli strike damaged an information office linked to Hamas.

Israel has shown its determination to target Hamas in its efforts to free Shalit, but called a halt to a planned incursion into the northern Gaza Strip Thursday amid international calls for the use of diplomacy to free Shalit.

The Hamas-led government had earlier said it had no information on the capture of Shalit but urged any group holding him to treat him well.

In the West Bank, Israeli troops rounded up more than 64 Hamas members, including eight ministers — a third of the Palestinian cabinet — and 24 lawmakers in a vast military sweep overnight Wednesday.

Hamas, boycotted by Israel and the West as a terrorist group, condemned the arrests as a declaration of "open war" aimed at destroying its government.

In a sign of the sharp deterioration in relations with the Palestinians, a meeting to prepare for a summit between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Abbas was cancelled.

Meanwhile Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip fired six rockets into southern Israel on Thursday but caused no casualties, an Israeli military source said.

Thousands of Palestinians protested in Gaza and the West Bank in support of Hamas.