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Airstrikes and artillery pound Gaza

Israel says Interior Ministry building used in terror planning



JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Israel rounded up members of the Hamas-led Palestinian government Thursday, and warplanes fired a rocket into the Palestinian Authority's Interior Ministry building in Gaza City.

Early Friday, Palestinian and Israeli sources said offices of President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah Party were also hit in an airstrike. Details of the attack were not immediately available.

The Israeli military said it targeted the Interior Ministry building because it was being used for "directing and planning terror activities." There were no immediate reports of casualties, but the building was in flames. (Watch images from the aftermath of the strikes -- 7:02)

Several other airstrikes hit in and around Gaza City about 2:30 a.m. Friday. Targets hit included a Hamas training camp and what the Israeli military said was a weapons storehouse. The raids knocked out power to some parts of the territory not blacked out Wednesday, when aircraft took out the main power plant before Israeli troops moved into southern Gaza.

The arrests of Palestinian Cabinet ministers and parliament members took place as the Israeli military continued its thrust into Gaza. The Israel Defense Forces says the action is part of an attempt to rescue kidnapped army Cpl. Gilad Shalit.

On Thursday, the IDF fired more than 400 artillery shells into northern Gaza in an attempt to end the firing of Palestinian rockets into Israel, and troops moved through southern Gaza in search of Shalit. Palestinians fired four Qassam rockets into Israel, but caused no damage or injuries, the IDF reported. (Watch more Israeli strikes on Gaza -- 2:08)

Palestinian sources said an expanded Israeli push into northern Gaza was delayed to allow time for diplomacy.

Israeli troops are moving slowly to avoid "undue misery," said Daniel Ayalon, Israel's ambassador to the United States. He added that the Israeli operations were designed to put pressure on Palestinian leaders.

"We're willing to wait. There is some respite, and we will give diplomacy a chance as we have already been," he said. "But time is of essence and, of course, we cannot wait indefinitely."

Egypt and Qatar have been working to broker a settlement. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak told the government newspaper al-Ahram on Thursday that Hamas has approved a conditional plan for returning Shalit.

Cabinet arrests

Israel, which has rejected calls for prisoner exchanges because of fears it would encourage more abductions, has not accepted the terms, Mubarak told al-Ahram.

The Palestine Liberation Organization said 84 people had been arrested, including seven Cabinet officials and 21 members of the Palestinian parliament.

The IDF said 87 people were arrested overnight. Of those, it said, 64 were members of Hamas. Another 23 belong to other factions.

Among the Cabinet members arrested were Labor Minister Mohammad al-Barghouti, Minister of Jerusalem Affairs Khaled Abu Arafeh, Minister of Local Governments Issa al Jaabari and Religious Affairs Minister Naif al Rajoub, Palestinian sources said.

Israeli officials said the Palestinians were arrested as suspected terrorists.

Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres said the arrests will put pressure on Hamas to decide what kind of organization it is going to be.

"They have to decide if they're a government or if they belong to a terroristic organization," Peres said.

"Their arrests were not arbitrary. They will be put to trial, and they will be able to defend themselves in accordance with a legal system which is internationally recognized."

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat denounced the arrests.

"Kidnapping Palestinian lawmakers and holding the Palestinian government hostage will neither strengthen Israel's hand in bargaining nor bring any good to anyone in the region," Erakat said.

According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the arrests were planned weeks ago but received approval from Israel's attorney general Wednesday.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev denied the lawmakers were arrested in an effort to secure Shalit's release, insisting the Israeli government had finally run out of patience with the political unrest in the territories.

When asked why the arrests were carried out at this time, Regev said Israel had been "giving time" to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

"He said that he was trying to bring about positive changes," Regev said. "But if you look at what's happened over the last few weeks and the last few days, really we've had to draw a line in the sand."

As part of Thursday's operations, the IDF said it had attacked a car in Gaza City. Islamic Jihad sources said the car was carrying members of the Palestinian militant group. One person in the vehicle was injured, the sources said.

The IDF also said it was attacking areas in southern Gaza "in which terror cells" operate to "impair the ability of the terrorists to transfer the kidnapped IDF soldier."

Elsewhere, Palestinian militants blew a hole in the fence along the Gaza border with Egypt, Palestinian sources said, and Palestinians were rushing to get through Thursday.

Security forces reportedly were trying to reseal the border. Israel sealed all border crossings Monday.

Settler's body found

Early Thursday, a body found near the West Bank city of Ramallah was reported to be that of Eliyahu Yitzhak Asheri, 18, a settler seized by Palestinian militants hours after Shalit's kidnapping Sunday, Israeli security sources said.

The body was sent to the Pathological Institute in Israel for formal identification, sources said. (Watch how the slaying may deepen the crisis -- 1:34)

Asheri's captors, a militant faction calling itself the Popular Resistance Committees, said the teen was killed "as a response to the targeting and killing of our leaders."

On Wednesday, the PRC displayed Asheri's identity card and said he would be "butchered" unless Israel stopped its incursion into Gaza.

Asheri lived in the Itamar settlement, near Nablus. His family reported him missing Sunday, telling police he did not come back from the French Hill district of Jerusalem.

The body's discovery was the latest in a series of events that began early Sunday, when Palestinian militants tunneled into Israel and attacked an army post near Israel's border with Egypt and Gaza, kidnapping Shalit and killing two other soldiers. (Watch friends and relatives mourn Asheri -- 1:44)

Israeli intelligence indicated Shalit is being held in the Khan Yunis refugee camp. An Israeli airstrike in Khan Yunis targeted what the Israeli military said was a storehouse for Qassam rockets.

Israeli warplanes have knocked out bridges connecting northern and southern Gaza and destroyed a power station in an effort to prevent militants from moving the captured soldier outside southern Gaza, according to the IDF.

On Monday, three Palestinian militant groups -- the military wing of Hamas, the PRC and the previously unknown Army of Islam -- claimed responsibility for Shalit's kidnapping.

They issued a statement saying they would exchange information about the soldier if Israel freed all Palestinian women and youths under 18 who are in Israeli jails.

The Israeli government quickly rejected the offer and other calls to release Shalit as part of a prisoner exchange.

Pressure on Syria

On Wednesday evening, Israeli jets buzzed the home of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Ladekye, outside Damascus. Israeli television reported that the president was at home at the time.

Peres complained that Syria allowed the exiled Hamas political leader Khalid Meshaal -- operating out of Damascus -- to order the kidnapping of the Israeli soldier.

The flyover was seen as an attempt to bring pressure on al-Assad to rein in Meshaal.

Syrian state television called the Israeli move "an unacceptable, hostile and provocative act." Syria said its anti-aircraft batteries fired on the Israeli warplanes and chased them away.

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