- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 4, 2006

JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Ehud Olmert today ignored a deadline to begin releasing Palestinian prisoners and instead issued a veiled threat against Syria, vowing to strike “those who sponsor” the militants in the Gaza Strip who seized a young Israeli soldier.

Mr. Olmert’s comments signaled that a flurry of diplomacy throughout the region is still no closer to securing the release of Cpl. Gilad Shalit.

The Palestinian militants holding Cpl. Shalit angrily said they would not release any more information about him after Israel ignored their ultimatum to begin releasing hundreds of prisoners early today. But they said they would not kill the soldier, after earlier signals that he would be harmed.

Speaking at a business conference in southern Israel, Mr. Olmert repeated his long-standing refusal to negotiate with Cpl. Shalit’s captors. “We won’t negotiate with terror elements and we won’t let anyone believe that kidnapping is a tool to bring Israel to its knees,” he said.

He told the audience he has ordered the army to push forward with efforts “to strike terrorists and those who sent them and those who sponsor them,” an apparent reference to Syria. “None of them will be immune.”

Since Cpl. Shalit was captured June 25 in a cross-border raid, Israel has made it clear that it holds Syria and Hamas’ Syrian-based leader, Khaled Mashaal, responsible. Last week, Israeli warplanes buzzed the summer residence of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Israeli officials also have implied that Mashaal is a target for assassination.

Israel last week staged a ground operation in Gaza, along with a campaign of air strikes, to pressure the ruling Hamas party to secure Cpl. Shalit’s release. Both Israeli defense officials and Palestinian security officials said the ground operation in northern Gaza was slowly expanding.

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