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Israel hits Palestinian Interior Ministry

Palestinian rocket hits school; Olmert calls it 'major escalation'
Israeli Cpl. Gilad Shalit, here in a family photo, was kidnapped on June 25 in southern Israel.



GAZA CITY (CNN) -- An Israeli airstrike hit the building housing the Palestinian government's Interior Ministry early Wednesday, the Israel Defense Forces and Palestinian sources told CNN.

Because of the timing of the attack, the building was believed to be empty, but no details were immediately available. The Interior Ministry is in charge of Palestinian security.

Israeli helicopter gunships hit the same building early last Friday.

The IDF also confirmed two more early-Wednesday airstrikes -- one on what Israelis described as a Hamas outpost in southern Gaza and the other on a college in Gaza City.

Palestinian sources confirmed the attack on the college, which the Israeli military says is a nighttime meeting place for Hamas militants planning attacks against Israelis.

The Israelis have kept steady pressure on Palestinian militants as they try to free captured Israeli Cpl. Gilad Shalit, 19. Three Palestinian organizations have said they are jointly holding him.

The Israeli military has been launching nightly airstrikes. Early Sunday, an Israeli helicopter gunship fired a missile at the empty building housing the offices of Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniya in western Gaza City, leaving the structure ablaze.

Haniya on Tuesday called on the militants holding Shalit to not kill him and urged them to keep talking with mediators.

Also Tuesday, a Palestinian rocket with a longer-than-normal range hit an empty school in the Israeli coastal city of Ashkelon. Israel's prime minister called the attack "a major escalation."

The Qassam rocket, fired from northern Gaza, hit a school building that was left empty at the end of the day. It was the first time a Palestinian rocket has reached the center of the city, which is just north of Gaza.

No injuries were reported, the Israel Defense Forces said. But Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called the attack a "major escalation ... in the war of terror that Hamas, which rules the Palestinian Authority, is responsible for."

"This vicious act aiming to hurt the citizens of Israel will have far-reaching consequences, and Hamas would be the first to suffer from them," he said during a Fourth of July reception at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv.

The military wing of Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack.

Israeli media reports said the rocket had traveled deeper into Israel than any has before.

Military sources said the homemade rocket normally has a range of about 10 kilometers (6.2 miles). In a statement, Hamas' military wing said it has developed an upgraded version that can travel about 15 kilometers (9.3 miles).

Deadline passes

Haniya's remarks came after a deadline set by Palestinian militant groups passed early Tuesday with no significant change apparent in the uneasy standoff.

"Since the first moment this issue has come up, the Palestinian government has called and still calls for the necessity of keeping the Israeli soldier alive and to treat him well," Haniya said.

"The government is making efforts with Palestinian, Arab and regional sides in order to put an end to this issue in the most appropriate way."

Shalit was kidnapped on June 25 in southern Israel. Three militant organizations -- the military wing of Hamas, the Popular Resistance Committees and the Army of Islam -- claimed responsibility.

They demanded that Israel start releasing Palestinian prisoners by 6 a.m. Tuesday (11 p.m. ET Monday). But the militants' statement did not spell out what the consequences would be if Israel did not act.

The Israeli government has refused to release Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Shalit.

"We will not hold any negotiations over release of prisoners. The Palestinian Authority carries full responsibility for the safety of Gilad Shalit and his safe turn back to Israel," said a statement from Olmert's office.

The Army of Islam said Tuesday that the case of the Israeli soldier is closed, and it will not hand out any more information on him.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that the militant groups had ended their participation in mediation talks.

"The militant groups withdrew their representative from the talks with the Egyptian mediators," Hamas spokesman Osama al-Muzaini told the newspaper.

"They [the militant factions] may kill him, take him to another country or may hide him. All options are open."

Forces enter northern Gaza

Israeli armor and engineering forces moved inside northern Gaza near the Erez border crossing on Tuesday afternoon.

Backed by armored personnel carriers, tanks and bulldozers, troops crossed to the Palestinian side of the border around midday to uncover tunnels dug by militants and explosive devices planted in the area, an Israeli army spokeswoman said.

The Erez terminal between Israel and Gaza was sealed off due to a security alert on a planned attack in the area by Palestinian militants, the army said.

Late Monday, Israel launched airstrikes near the northern town of Beit Hanoun and inside Gaza City.

The attack near Beit Hanoun killed at least one person and wounded three others, Palestinian security sources said.

A second strike hit near Gaza City's Islamic University and the Palestinian foreign ministry.

Another airstrike took aim at a militant cell early Tuesday. The Israeli military said Palestinians were planting explosive devices near a border fence in northern Gaza.

Arrests in settler's killing

In the West Bank, Israeli Defense Forces on Tuesday arrested three suspects in the death of Israeli settler Eliyahu Asheri, 18, who was abducted within hours of Shalit's disappearance, an IDF representative said.

Asheri's body was found Thursday near Ramallah.

The suspects were arrested after Israeli forces surrounded a West Bank police station following a tip the three men were inside. After a standoff that lasted hours, the suspects surrendered without incident.

In information posted on a radical Web site, Asheri's captors, the militant faction known as the Popular Resistance Committees, said the teen was killed "as a response to the targeting and killing of our leaders."

Asheri lived in the Itamar settlement near the West Bank town of Nablus.

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