Israel Strikes at Hamas Anew

Smoke billows in the outskirts of the Palestinian town of Beit Hanoun, in the northern Gaza Strip, after a barrage of artillery fire from Israeli positions.
Smoke billows in the outskirts of the Palestinian town of Beit Hanoun, in the northern Gaza Strip, after a barrage of artillery fire from Israeli positions. (By Baz Ratner -- Associated Press)
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 2, 2006

GAZA CITY, July 2 -- Israeli military aircraft destroyed the offices here of Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, the highest-ranking official in the Hamas-led Palestinian government, before dawn Sunday in the latest phase of a building military effort to force the release of a captured Israeli soldier.

The missile strike set Haniyeh's offices ablaze. No one was inside the building at the time. Israel last week battered the empty offices of Interior Minister Saed Siyam, who controls a Hamas-dominated security force deployed in Gaza's streets.

A second pre-dawn strike less than an hour later hit a post used by the militia in the Jabalya refugee camp north of Gaza City, killing one gunman and wounding at least two others, according to Palestinian hospital officials.

Israel blames the radical Islamic movement for the June 25 attack on an army post just outside the Gaza Strip that killed two soldiers and resulted in the capture of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, now being held by Palestinian gunmen. An Israeli military statement said Haniyeh's office was targeted because Hamas, which does not recognize Israel's right to exist, is a "terrorist organization" that it holds responsible for Shalit's capture.

The airstrikes followed a day when Egyptian efforts to broker Shalit's safe return appeared near collapse, as Israel rejected a demand that it free hundreds of Palestinians from Israeli jails in exchange for his release.

Egypt's intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, canceled a planned visit here amid signs the talks he is supervising with the armed Palestinian groups holding Shalit would not result in a deal. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said in a statement that "though the efforts are still ongoing, we have not reached an acceptable solution."

"We haven't lost hope," said Nabil Aburdeneh, an adviser to Abbas and his chief spokesman. "There is a glimpse of it left."

Israeli officials said the dim assessment could be a negotiating tactic that the Egyptians are using with the military wing of Hamas, which along with two smaller armed groups is holding the 19-year-old soldier. Hamas's political leadership here, led by Haniyeh, has denied involvement in Shalit's capture.

Although the Israeli government makes little distinction between the military and political wings of Hamas, the groups leaders say they are powerless over militia commanders, who last month broke a 15-month informal truce amid Israeli artillery shelling and airstrikes that killed more than a dozen Palestinian civilians.

Israel has also accused Khaled Mashal, Hamas's political leader living in exile in the Syrian capital, Damascus, of ordering the attack that resulted in Shalit's capture. Referring to Mashal and other hard-line leaders, Aburdeneh said, "I think there are hidden efforts underway with the people abroad. The pressure is coming from the people in exile."

The troops and armor that Israel has deployed along Gaza's perimeter since then remained on standby Saturday, although artillery fire and airstrikes on access routes of potential use to Shalit's captors continued.

But Palestinian officials said they believed that Israel, which suspended a planned ground incursion here three days to give diplomacy more time, is waiting only until it locates the soldier to begin a broad military operation.

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