GAZA, (Reuters) – Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh told Israel on Friday to halt its Gaza offensive if it wanted to free a captured soldier and said his Hamas-led government would not give way under force.
Israeli warplanes pounded Gaza, setting ablaze the Interior Ministry offices, on the third day of an offensive aimed at bringing home the army corporal who was seized in a cross-border raid last Sunday.
The crisis has sent Israeli-Palestinian relations to new lows and piled more pressure on the Hamas Islamist government, straining under a U.S.-led aid embargo to get it to renounce violence and drop its vow to destroy Israel.
Haniyeh, addressing the public for the first time since the abduction of Corporal Gilad Shalit, said at Muslim prayers in Gaza’s main mosque that he was working with Egyptian mediators and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to end the crisis.
“The aggression must stop in order not to make the situation more complicated,” Haniyeh said, vowing that his government would not collapse even if its members were detained or killed.
“No concessions will be made,” he said.
Hamas ministers have been keeping under cover after Israeli threats of assassination. Hamas’s armed wing was among the groups that grabbed Shalit, although the government said it had no knowledge of the raid.
Voicing hope for mediation, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said in a newspaper interview that Hamas had given “conditional approval” for the release of Shalit, without setting out what the conditions were. But while Israel held off a threatened ground attack into northern Gaza to give Egyptian diplomacy time, there was no suggestion the Jewish state would agree to any conditions.
Mubarak said Israel had not yet agreed to conditions. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s office had no comment.
Israel rejected a demand by militants to free Palestinian prisoners for information on Shalit’s fate.
They have not said whether he is alive or dead.
“Make no mistake, we are not going to negotiate on the release of our soldier,” cabinet minister Meir Sheetrit told Reuters.
Overnight, Israeli planes struck over 20 targets in the Gaza Strip. They included the office of the Hamas interior minister, a building used by Al-Aqsa Brigades militants, part of Abbas’s Fatah movement, roads and zones used for firing rockets.
An Islamic Jihad militant was killed, the first death of the offensive, in what the army said was a strike on a rocket squad. Troops killed two gunmen in a clash that erupted during an arrest raid in the West Bank.
A day after seizing dozens of Hamas cabinet members and officials in the West Bank, Israel revoked the Jerusalem residency of four lawmakers linked to the group. The Interior Ministry said that was not connected to the offensive.
Senior diplomatic sources said Israel had put an assault into the northern Gaza Strip on hold to allow more time for mediation. A poll published on Friday showed that most Israelis favoured diplomacy before large-scale military action.
Israel is also under international pressure to avoid the civilian casualties that could result from an offensive into densely populated Gaza, home to 1.4 million Palestinians.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other Group of Eight foreign ministers urged Israel on Thursday to show restraint in Gaza, where Israeli strikes have knocked out bridges, water systems and a major power transformer.
The International Committee of the Red Cross called on Friday for Israel to allow urgent medical supplies into Gaza.