Israel destroys Hamas-run Interior Ministry in Gaza

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By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – Israel bombed the Hamas-run Interior Ministry in Gaza and closed border crossings with the strip on Friday, sharply escalating what it called a campaign to halt Palestinian rocket attacks.

The four-storey ministry complex in Gaza City was empty at the time but one woman was killed and at least 30 others nearby were wounded in the air strike, medical officials said.

“It felt like an earthquake,” said Umm Fahmi, a woman who lives across from the blast site.

“My house did not only shake, it jumped from its foundations and back down. How could they drop such a bomb in a residential area on top of people’s heads?” she said, peering through the dust at the concrete and steel remains of the security complex.

It was the first Israeli bombing of a Palestinian government building since Hamas Islamists took over Gaza in June after routing secular Fatah forces loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas.

A second Israeli air strike minutes later damaged Hamas’s so-called naval headquarters in the central Gaza Strip.

Israel has killed at least 33 Palestinians in Gaza this week as part of what officials describe as a stepped-up campaign to pressure Hamas to rein in militants who have fired more than 110 rockets into the Jewish state in the last three days alone.

An Israeli army spokeswoman confirmed the air strikes, calling the targets “Hamas terrorist” positions.

“This is part of our response to Qassam (rocket) fire against Israel,” the spokeswoman said.

The Interior Ministry oversees Hamas-controlled government forces in Gaza, but not the group’s armed wing. The armed wing claimed responsibility for most rocket salvoes since Tuesday, when Israel killed 18 Palestinians, mostly Hamas militants.

PEACE PROCESS

The violence has prompted the Palestinians to caution that peace talks between Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, spurred by a visit by U.S. President George W. Bush, were in jeopardy.

Earlier on Friday, the Israeli Defence Ministry closed all Israel’s border crossings with Gaza and prevented the delivery of a U.N. aid shipment.

Only so-called “humanitarian cases” given Defence Minister Ehud Barak’s personal approval would be allowed through, the ministry said.

“If milk is low in Gaza, the minister will be asked to approve a milk shipment, and it will enter,” a Defence Ministry spokesman said.

The United Nations condemned the closure and warned Israel against imposing illegal “collective punishment” against Gaza’s 1.5 million residents, most of whom depend on foreign aid.

“The Israeli reaction is not justified by those rocket attacks, even though it’s caused by those rocket attacks,” said John Holmes, undersecretary-general for Humanitarian Affairs.A the behest of Arab and Muslim countries, the U.N. Human Rights Council will hold an emergency session next Wednesday to examine Israel’s new measures in Gaza, a U.N. source said.

Israel has imposed strict curbs on non-humanitarian supplies to Gaza since June. But many essentials have been getting in, either with Israeli approval or through smuggling, though supplies are limited and prices steep.

In the West Bank city of Nablus on Friday, Israeli troops killed a militant linked to Abbas’s Fatah movement.

An Israeli air strike flattened the previous Hamas-run Interior Ministry building during a bombing campaign that followed the abduction of an Israeli soldier by militants in June 2006.

Abbas’s government has condemned the latest Israeli operations as “a slap in the face” to efforts by Bush to achieve a peace treaty by the end of the year.

(Additional reporting by Avida Landau and Dan Williams in Jerusalem, Louis Charbonneau in the United Nations and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Adam Entous; editing by Sami Aboudi)

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