updated 9/27/2006 9:23:44 PM ET 2006-09-28T01:23:44

Israel on Wednesday released the Palestinian deputy prime minister, the highest-ranking of more than 30 officials in the Hamas-led government jailed as part of a crackdown on the Islamic militant group.

The detention of much of the Hamas-led government has been a major sore point in rapidly deteriorating relations between Israel and the Palestinians since Hamas took power.

Nasser Shaer, who was held without charge for more than a month, was ordered freed by an Israeli court, which banned him from going to his government office in the West Bank city of Ramallah for two weeks.

Shaer said Wednesday he was not mistreated in jail, but added: “There is nothing dearer than being free. They came and took me from my house in front of my children, wife, and family. They had no reason to do it.”

Israel and the West, labeling the violent Islamic movement a terror group, have cut off funding to the Palestinian government, plunging the Palestinian areas into a deep financial crisis.

Violence flared June 25 when Hamas-linked militants attacked an Israeli army base near Gaza, killing two soldiers, capturing a third and triggering a large-scale Israeli offensive in the coastal strip.

Dozens of officials detained
Israel also rounded up dozens of West Bank officials from the Hamas-led government. Though Israel said they were suspected of involvement in terrorism, it was widely assumed they were meant to be traded for the soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit. But no progress has been reported in mediation efforts.

Shaer managed to evade detention for more than a month, but was caught Aug. 19.

After Israeli soldiers dropped him off at a checkpoint Wednesday, he hitched a ride home to Nablus, where he was greeted by dozens of supporters who chanted, “God is great,” and held a party in his honor at a local restaurant.

Thirty lawmakers and four Cabinet ministers remain in Israeli custody, charged with belonging to an illegal group. On Monday, a military court in the West Bank declined to release 21 of the detainees on bail. A hearing for 13 others is scheduled for Oct. 5.

Palestinian government spokesman Ghazi Hamad said Shaer’s detention was “political and illegal,” and the charges against the other officials were “fabricated.”

Joined Hamas party after election
Shaer, who did not run for parliament on the Hamas ticket but joined the government after the Islamic group’s election victory, said he refused to talk politics in prison and denied he is a Hamas member.

Breaking with Hamas ideology that refuses to recognize a Jewish state in the Middle East, Shaer told reporters that if Israel renewed its 2000 offer of 95 percent of the West Bank and all of Gaza for a Palestinian state, leaving Israel intact, “I would ask the Palestinian people.”

The late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat rejected the offer, and Israel took it off the table after violence erupted later in 2000.

Egypt has unsuccessfully tried to broker a deal trading Shalit for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

Egypt recently sent a letter to Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, based in Damascus, Syria, demanding Shalit’s immediate release to avoid a worsening crisis, Palestinian officials and Arab diplomats said.

Hostage talks disputed
But Moussa Abu Marzouk, deputy leader of Hamas’ political bureau, denied Hamas was under pressure to release the soldier.

“We are keen to make the Egyptian mediation a success,” he said, but added: “Until now, we are not any closer to having the requests of Hamas for the soldier’s release met.”

Meanwhile, Israel pushed on with its Gaza offensive, destroying the house of a weapons dealer in the southern town of Rafah, in an attack that killed a 14-year-old girl, Palestinian officials said.

The army called the owner 15 minutes before a first air strike and told him to leave, witnesses said. That air strike caused no injuries, but as children gathered near the rubble, a second Israeli missile struck, killing the teenager and wounding seven other children, hospital officials said.

The army said the house was used as cover for a weapons smuggling tunnel being dug under the nearby border with Egypt.

Israel claims Egypt helping militants
The chief of Israel’s Shin Bet security service, Yuval Diskin, accused Egypt Wednesday of allowing Palestinian militants to smuggle 19 tons of weapons into Gaza — much of it through tunnels — since Israel withdrew from Gaza last year.

“The Egyptians know who the smugglers are and don’t deal with them,” Diskin told Israel’s Cabinet, according to a participant in the meeting. “They received intelligence on this from us and didn’t use it.”

Egyptian forces destroyed another tunnel Wednesday, Egyptian police said.

Early Thursday, Israeli aircraft fired two missiles at the house of a Palestinian weapons dealer on the Gaza-Egypt border, destroying it completely, Palestinian security officials said.

The owner received a warning by telephone before the air strike, and residents left the building, the officials said. Two people were lightly hurt.

Israeli has carried out a series of such strikes against homes of suspected weapons dealers in recent weeks.

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