- The Washington Times - Friday, June 30, 2006

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Israel put off a planned ground invasion of northern Gaza yesterday to give diplomacy another chance as efforts intensified to persuade the Hamas-led government to free a captured Israeli soldier.

However, the air war continued. Israeli warplanes struck the Palestinian Interior Ministry early today, setting it ablaze even as Arab leaders tried to forge a deal that would halt the Israeli offensive and free the 19-year-old soldier held by gunmen allied with the ruling Islamic party Hamas.

The bombing was one of more than a dozen across the Gaza Strip after midnight.

Despite the air attacks, the delay of a new thrust into Gaza produced the first hope of a peaceful resolution to the crisis.

In the center of the diplomatic give and take was Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who said that Palestinian militants agreed to a conditional release of the kidnapped soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, 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 Authority 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.

Elsewhere, casualties began to mount. The local leader of Islamic Jihad was seriously wounded in an air strike in Rafah, hospital officials said, and three gunmen affiliated with Mr. Abbas’ party Fatah were wounded in a gunbattle in the Jebaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza.

Earlier, a 5-year-old girl was wounded in an air strike 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.

Israel also vowed to hunt down the killers of a kidnapped 18-year-old, whose body was found yesterday in the West Bank with a gunshot wound to the head. Hamas-linked militants said they killed him.

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

In remarks published today, Mr, Mubarak told the pro-government Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram, “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.”

Gideon Meir, a senior Israeli Foreign Ministry official, said Israel did not know of such an offer and would have no comment until later today.

“The soldier will only be released unconditionally, and there will be no negotiations with a gang of terrorists and criminals,” Mr. Meir said. “There is nothing to talk with them about.”

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 in a speech to air force graduates. “The efforts to bring about his return are being carried out intensively through various channels.”

Israel said the crisis will end when Cpl. Shalit is released.

“If the Palestinians act now to release Cpl. Shalit and hand him back to us … we would immediately initiate a dramatic reduction in tension,” Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said. “He is the primary issue, he is the primary reason for the crisis.”

After diplomatic efforts by Egypt, Jordan, France and other nations failed, Israel sent thousands of soldiers into vacant areas of southern Gaza on Wednesday.

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

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