Israelis in attack on ministry
ISRAELI aircraft struck the Palestinian interior ministry early this morning, setting the building on fire.
Earlier, it was reported Palestinian militants had said they were conditionally willing to free a kidnapped Israeli soldier.
Smoke rose from the building in central Gaza City - the most symbolic attack by Israeli forces so far as they put pressure on Palestinian militants to release a seized soldier.
The Israeli military said the ministry office, controlled by Hamas, was "a meeting place to plan and direct terror activity". Because of the late hour no-one was killed in the attack.
The attack came after another dramatic day, with Israel taking its most drastic action yet against the Hamas-led Palestinian government. Troops arrested a third of the cabinet and about a fifth of the parliament, in a move which faction leaders said was aimed at pushing the Islamic movement from power.
Seven Hamas ministers and 24 MPs were held in early morning raids across the occupied West Bank, Palestinian officials said. Five cabinet ministers, including Omar Abdul-Razeq, the finance minister, were seized near Ramallah. Soldiers took them from their rooms at gunpoint, according to hotel staff.
Israel said they would be investigated for violating anti- terrorism legislation, but the Palestinian human rights group al-Haq said the arrests were a "collective punishment" and thus violated the Fourth Geneva Convention.
Last night, Israeli artillery fire continued to pound the northern Gaza Strip and air strikes were reported in the southern part of the coastal enclave. Palestinian officials said an electricity distribution network was hit, plunging parts of the district into darkness a day after Israeli warplanes knocked out electricity to nearly half of Gaza's 1.4 million residents.
Five Palestinian Kassam rockets fired from northern Gaza landed in Israel, without causing casualties or damage.
Two Palestinians were wounded by Israeli shelling of a post of the Palestinian national security forces, according to Palestinian reports. The army said that any casualties were "not from Israel defence forces shelling and may be from an internal Palestinian affair."
Hamas called off an 18-month ceasefire after seven Palestinians were killed in an explosion on a Gaza beach on 9 June.
In a radio interview, an Israeli minister, Isaac Herzog, denied that those arrested were to be used as hostages in a swap for the kidnapped Israeli army corporal, Gilad Shalit, and voiced the hope that the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, of Fatah, would use the powers granted to him by the Palestinian Basic Law to dissolve parliament and the cabinet - the arrests have deprived Hamas of its parliamentary majority.
But Palestinian analyst Hani Masri said any replacement cabinet would "lack legitimacy", and he advised Mr Abbas to resign if the Hamas ministers and MPs were not released.
In explaining the arrests, Israel said it had acted with restraint after the January elections won by Hamas in the hope Mr Abbas would be able to get the government "to abandon the path of terrorism and violence".
A Hamas spokesman, Sami Abu Zuhri, said the arrests aimed to "throw the government into disorder and to dismantle the Palestinian legislative council".
He went on: "The story of the soldier is just a pretext for the real goal - overthrowing the government. The Zionist occupation will bear responsibility for all the consequences of this escalation."
Tayeb Abdul Rahim, an aide to Mr Abbas, said the arrests "indicate that Israel's planned intention was to destroy the Palestinian National Authority and the Palestinian partner for negotiations".
Cpl Shalit is believed to be held in the southern part of the coastal enclave and Israel has said some of its military steps were needed to prevent him from being moved. The militant group Popular Resistance Committees, which says it is holding Cpl Shalit, issued a statement taunting Israel and vowing not to provide information on whether he is dead or alive.
In a signal of a possible diplomatic breakthrough, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak said last night Palestinian militants had agreed to a conditional release of the soldier, but Israel had not yet accepted their terms.
However, in Jerusalem, an Israeli foreign ministry official, Gideon Meir, said Israel did not know of such an offer and would not comment until today.
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