Palestinian-Israeli Gaza Confrontation Simmers

Israeli planes have blasted the Hamas-controlled Palestinian Interior Ministry in Gaza City. Israel is intensifying pressure on Islamic militants to order the release of a captured soldier. Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said Friday that Israel's offensive in Gaza was part of a premeditated plan to bring down the Hamas-led government.

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JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden, in for Renee Montagne.

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And I'm Steve Inskeep, good morning.

Today, Israeli warplanes struck the Palestinian Interior Ministry, and they set the target on fire. Israel also continued its military moves in Gaza, hoping to free a captured soldier. And Israeli forces made a sweep through the West Bank yesterday. They arrested scores of members of the Palestinian group Hamas.

NPR's Linda Gradstein visited the West Bank town of Ramallah.

(Soundbite of street noise)

LINDA GRADSTEIN reporting:

The talk on the streets in Ramallah yesterday was Israel's arrest of dozens of Hamas lawmakers in the West Bank, including eight cabinet ministers. Hamas spokesman Ziad Daiyeh(ph) said these politicians were democratically elected and their detention violates international law.

Mr. ZIAD DAIYEH (Spokesman, Hamas): This is the wrong way for Israel to solve the trouble, because Israel knows very well that those ministers or MP's do not have any information on Israeli soldier, and cannot do anything to release him.

GRADSTEIN: The Hamas military wing is one of three groups that claimed responsibility for the attack on an Israeli army outpost last Sunday that killed two Israeli soldiers and led to the capture of Gilad Shalit. Hamas leaders say the military and political wings of the organization are completely separate - a claim Israel rejects. Israeli officials say the arrested Hamas politicians will be charged with participating in terrorist activities and tried in Israeli military courts. On the streets of Ramallah, there is little sympathy for the captured Israeli soldier. In a store selling watches and costume jewelry, owner Abu Ibrahim(ph) says the capture was justified.

Mr. ABU IBRAHIM (Store Owner, Ramallah): (Through translator) Why shouldn't we capture Israeli soldiers who are occupying Palestinian land? Today and every day, Israel is kidnapping Palestinians: women, children, even politicians. And no government in the world is protesting against that. That's the real crime.

GRADSTEIN: Next door, at a shop selling linens, 47-year-old Noelle Mohammed Ismail(ph) says the captured soldier offers an opportunity.

Ms. NOELLE MOHAMMED ISMAIL: (Foreign language spoken)

GRADSTEIN: My brother has been in an Israeli jail for four years, she said. His son cries every day for his father. We should release the Israeli soldier, in exchange for Palestinian prisoners like my brother.

So far, at least, Israel insists a prisoner exchange is not on the table, although Israel has, in the past, exchanged prisoners with other groups such as Hezbollah and the PLO. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak today said militants agreed to a conditional release of the kidnapped soldier, but that Israel had yet to accept their terms, which he did not specify. A spokesman for the Israeli foreign ministry said he was not familiar with any such offer.

Many Palestinians believe Israel is trying to do more in Gaza than just free the captured Israeli soldier. They believe Israel is trying to bring down the four-month-old Hamas government, and strengthen Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. But Nabil Ahmer(ph), a close advisor to Abbas, who he calls Abumazin(ph), says Abbas is being seen as powerless in the face of Israel's invasion of Gaza.

Mr. NABIL AHMER (Advisor to Mahmoud Abbas): What can Abumazin do in this case? They - not just in palace - they surround him by these actions and he will pay a high price for this.

GRADSTEIN: Palestinian analyst and former cabinet secretary Hassan Abdulibdah(ph) says the Israeli actions in Gaza will only lead to more violence.

Mr. HASSAN ABDULIBDAH (Palestinian Analyst): The Israeli military campaign, with the massive destructive powers and the use of these destructive powers against them for (unintelligible) will give more room to the radicals and will give the upper hand to those who are favoring the so-called militarization of the Palestinian-Israeli dialogue.

GRADSTEIN: Meanwhile, in Gaza, casualties are beginning to mount. A five-year-old girl and a 15-year-old boy were wounded in air strikes in northern Gaza that struck a power plant and cut off electricity to most of the Strip. The local leader of Islamic Jihad died early today of wounds he suffered in an Israeli air strike in Rafah. And in the West Bank, a gunman was killed in a shootout with Israeli troops.

Linda Gradstein, NPR News.

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