In a direct message to Hamas’ interior minister in Gaza, Israeli jet fighters destroyed his office early today, intensifying an air invasion while delaying a broad ground offensive to give Arab mediators a last chance to gain the release of a kidnapped soldier.
Israel’s air force has struck more than 30 targets in Gaza in the past 24 hours, hitting roads, bridges and power plants, in a massive offensive meant to pressure Hamas militants to release Cpl. Gilad Shalit, 19.
Shalit was captured on Sunday when Gaza militants tunnelled under the border, attacking an Israeli outpost and killing two other soldiers.
While thousands of troops are massed along the Israel-Gaza border waiting for the go-ahead for a massive invasion into the crowded coastal area, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak said militants had agreed to the terms of an agreement to release Shalit, but Israel had not yet signed on to the proposal.
Israeli officials said they did not know of such an offer. But a senior government official did say the planned ground offensive had been delayed due to a request by Egypt that mediators be given a chance to resolve the crisis.
Israeli defence minister Amir Peretz called for leaders who have influence on the Hamas government to exert immediate pressure on them to release Shalit.
“The quicker this is done the better it will be. If the soldier will be returned and the Qassam (rocket) fire will be halted we will also return our soldiers to their bases,” Peretz was quoted as saying in the Israeli daily newspaper Yediot Ahronot.
Taher al-Nunu, a Palestinian Foreign Ministry spokesman, said the Palestinian government was still seeking a “diplomatic solution to end the crisis”.
There has been no sign of life from Shalit since his abduction on Sunday. The Popular Resistance Committees – one of the groups holding him – did not confirm his condition in a statement yesterday, but insisted on swapping him for Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails. Israel has rejected that demand.
In the pre-dawn attack on the Interior Ministry, Hamas minister Said Siyam’s office went up in flames when a missile scored a direct hit on his fourth-floor room. The ground floor office of Siyam’s bodyguard was also destroyed, while the first, second and third floors of the buildings – where passports and ID cards are printed – were left untouched.
The Interior Ministry is nominally in charge of the Palestinian security forces, but president Mahmoud Abbas stripped it of much of its authority in a power struggle that erupted after Hamas won a January parliamentary election. The Israeli military said it targeted the ministry because it was “a meeting place to plan and direct terror activity”.
Palestinian police and members of the Hamas militia guarding the nearby Foreign Ministry fled immediately after the attack on the Interior Ministry, fearing their building would be next, witnesses said. The office of Palestinian prime minister Ismail Haniyeh and Abbas’ house are less than one mile from the Interior Ministry.
But Haniyeh and nearly all the members his Hamas-led Cabinet have not been seen since Shalit’s kidnapping, fearing they could be killed or face a fate similar to that of their colleagues in the West Bank, eight of whom were rounded up and thrown in Israeli prisons yesterday. Another 20 politicians have also been imprisoned.
Decoy convoys have been sent out ahead of any trips by Haniyeh, Siyam and Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar, who apparently also fear Israel’s air force will target and kill them as it did Hamas leaders Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantisi in 1994.
In a separate air strike, three Israeli missiles hit the office of hard-line Interior Ministry spokesman Khaled Abu Ilal, who heads a pro-Hamas militia.
The army said it also attacked a cell that attempted to fire an anti-tank missile at Israeli forces situated in southern Gaza. Mohammed Abdel Al, 25, a local leader of the Islamic Jihad militant group, died early today from wounds he suffered in that airstrike. He was the first casualty in Israel’s three-day-old offensive.
In a gun battle in the Jebaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza, three Fatah-affiliated gunmen were wounded in what they said was a fight against undercover Israeli forces. Israel denied it had any ground forces in the area.
“The only activity is air and artillery,” said army spokesman Capt. Jacob Dallal. Israeli ground troops have entered southern Gaza but have not yet penetrated the north.
Air force chief Maj. Gen. Eliezer Shakedi told the English-language daily, The Jerusalem Post, that all current activity in Gaza results from Shalit’s kidnapping. The air force has intensively attacked bridges connecting the northern and southern parts of Gaza to hinder travel, as well as a power station, Shakedi said.
“The government of Israel has decided on a complex action. As regards scale, well, for years we haven’t attacked the bridges. Now we’ve hit the three central bridges in the strip,” Shakedi was quoted as saying, adding that the air force’s decision to attack the power station was also unusual.
Yesterday evening, about 2,500 people attended a Hamas rally in Gaza City, denouncing Israel and calling for more abductions.
Palestinian militants launched home-made rockets last night, and four landed inside Israel, causing no damage or injuries, the army said. Islamic Jihad and the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, a militant group affiliated with Abbas’ Fatah, claimed responsibility.