- The Washington Times - Friday, July 7, 2006

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Israeli warplanes and tanks killed seven Palestinians in clashes with gunmen across the northern Gaza Strip yesterday, drawing European Union accusations that the Jewish state was using excessive force.

In a possible attempt to find a way out of the crisis, an Israeli Cabinet minister suggested Palestinian prisoners might be released as a “goodwill gesture” if militants first freed a captured soldier and ended rocket attacks.

Public Security Minister Avi Dichter said if captured Israeli army Cpl. Gilad Shalit were freed and rocket fire and other attacks halted, then Israel might be ready to “release prisoners to fulfill a goodwill gesture.”

The governing Hamas Islamist movement rejected the apparent overture but said that Cpl. Shalit was alive and demanded negotiations for his release.

The EU accused Israel of “disproportionate use of force” a day after 20 Palestinians and one soldier were killed in the bloodiest day of fighting since 2004.

The army has pushed deep into northern Gaza, taking over ruined Jewish settlements that Israel abandoned last year, in an offensive to bring home Cpl. Shalit and end rocket attacks.

The incursion has put added pressure on the Hamas government, already reeling from a Western aid embargo. Any lingering hope that peace talks could be revived has been dashed by the bloodshed.

In yesterday’s violence, in which medics said militants and civilians were killed, an air strike in northern Gaza killed two gunmen. The army said it had targeted armed men.

Witnesses said tank fire killed one man near the northern town of Beit Lahiya, scene of the worst fighting on Thursday.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert ordered tanks into Gaza after Hamas militants fired rockets into a major Israeli city. The offensive began 10 days ago with the stated goal of freeing Cpl. Shalit, captured in a raid on June 25.

Hamas said it was not asking Israel “for the impossible” over the 19-year-old tank gunner. Hamas, whose armed wing took part in Cpl. Shalit’s abduction, has demanded Israel free 1,000 prisoners in exchange for his release.

“His treatment is being done well and in a humanitarian way in accordance with the orders of our religion,” the group said.

“We stress that negotiations are the only way out of this case and the sole way to preserve the life of the soldier and secure his safe return to his family.”

Diplomatic talks led by Egypt have failed to secure Cpl. Shalit’s release, but an Israeli minister indicated a possible shift in Israel’s refusal to free prisoners in exchange.

In Tehran, a leading Iranian cleric accused Israel of exploiting public attention on the soccer World Cup as cover for its invasion of Gaza.

“They are doing dastardly deeds and they are doing it while people are attentively following the events of the World Cup,” Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati said in a sermon at Tehran University.

At least 37 Palestinians, the majority of them militants, have been killed since the Israeli offensive began, according to Palestinian medics and officials.

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