Gaza City, Gazy Strip — Israeli warplanes struck the Palestinian Interior Ministry early today, setting it ablaze as Arab leaders tried to forge a deal that would halt the Israeli offensive and free a 19-year-old soldier held by gunmen allied with the ruling Islamic Hamas.
The bombing was one of more than a dozen across the Gaza Strip after midnight, though Israel called off a planned ground invasion of northern Gaza on Thursday in order to give diplomacy another chance.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak 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 senior Israeli official said he 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 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.
Casualties began to mount. The local leader of Islamic Jihad, Mohammed Abdel Al, 25, died early today of wounds he suffered in an Israeli airstrike in Rafah, hospital officials said, and three Fatah-affiliated gunmen were wounded in a gun battle in the Jebaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza.
The gunmen said they were fighting against undercover Israeli forces, but Israel denied it had any ground forces. "The only activity is air and artillery," said army spokesman Capt. Jacob Dallal.
Earlier, a 5-year-old girl was wounded in an airstrike 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.
Meanwhile, Israel arrested dozens of ministers and lawmakers from the Palestinians' ruling Hamas party in the West Bank, including the deputy prime minister and more than one-third of the Cabinet. Israel also vowed to hunt down the killers of a kidnapped 18-year-old, whose body was found Thursday in the West Bank with a gunshot wound to the head.
Hamas-linked militants said they killed him.