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Israel widens Gaza offensive


GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- The government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert gave the Israeli army the go-ahead yesterday to widen its offensive in the Gaza Strip, including moving into urban areas if commanders deem it necessary.

But aides to Olmert stressed that there were no plans for a long-term reoccupation of Gaza, which Israel unilaterally relinquished more than nine months ago.

"We will not reoccupy Gaza," Justice Minister Haim Ramon told Israel radio. "But we will hit hard at everyone involved in terror against us, using all means and methods at our disposal."

Yesterday marked the eighth day of what has been a slow squeeze of the crowded coastal territory, a continuing bid by Israel's army to force Palestinian militants to release a captured Israeli soldier.

But Israeli artillery barrages, aerial bombardment and a move by troops and tanks into the northern and southern fringes of the territory have so far drawn only expressions of defiance from the militant groups claiming to have the 19-year-old soldier, Gilad Shalit. Yesterday, militants fired a rocket into the coastal city of Ashkelon for the second time in two days.

Israel has said it holds the Hamas-dominated Palestinian government responsible for Shalit's safety. Political leaders of the Islamist group, including Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, have denied prior knowledge of the raid that resulted in the soldier's capture.

Olmert's office said in a statement yesterday that "the rules of the game in dealing with the Palestinian Authority and Hamas must be changed."

In both the West Bank and Gaza, "institutions and infrastructure facilitating terrorism" would be targeted, the statement said.

Israeli officials were largely tight-lipped after a meeting yesterday of Olmert's most senior security advisers. Cabinet Minister Yitzhak Herzog told Israel radio, without elaborating, "We will take steps and they will be very serious."

There are growing indications that the offensive in Gaza could be a drawn-out affair. Olmert's office said commanders were told to prepare their troops for a "phased and continuous" operation.

Israel has been putting increasing pressure on the Hamas-run government, arresting dozens of officials last week, including eight Cabinet ministers.

And Israel appeared to be delivering an explicit message with its bombardment yesterday of the Interior Ministry complex in Gaza City. Interior Minister Said Siyam is a Hamas member believed by Israel to have friendly ties with members of Palestinian militia groups.

The aerial strike, the second on the complex since the Israeli offensive began, collapsed large sections of the top two floors, including Siyam's office. Smashed cinderblocks and a fine coat of concrete dust covered the ruined offices while electrical cables and broken reinforcement steel hung from the ruptured ceilings.

Palestinian security officials said the missile strike injured at least five residents of an apartment building next door.

Ken Ellingwood and Laura King write for the Los Angeles Times.

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