- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 4, 2006

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — A deadline by militants holding an Israeli soldier expired early today with no sign that Israel was considering giving in to the demand to release prisoners and no word from the captors.

The Hamas-linked militants set a 6 a.m. deadline for Israel to begin freeing the prisoners, implying they would kill him if their demands were not met.

Calls after the deadline expired to Hamas leaders and to Abu Obeida, spokesman for the Hamas military wing, were not answered. There was also no word on the condition of the soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, 19.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert rejected any negotiations with the militants, and the army pressed ahead with its Gaza offensive. Privately, though, some Israeli officials said the government had not ruled out any options to win Cpl. Shalit’s freedom.

Israel has pounded Gaza with air strikes and artillery shells for nearly a week in an unsuccessful effort to force the militants to release Cpl. Shalit. Israel sent a small force of tanks into northern Gaza yesterday, raising fears that it was gearing up for a large invasion.

After Cpl. Shalit was seized in a June 25 raid on an army post that left two comrades dead, his captors demanded that Israel free all imprisoned Palestinian women and minors in exchange for information about him. They later increased their demand to include the release of 1,000 more prisoners.

Early yesterday, Hamas’ military wing — one of the three groups holding him — issued a statement giving Israel until 6 a.m. today (11 p.m. EDT yesterday) to “start” freeing the prisoners.

If Israel doesn’t comply, “we will consider the soldier’s case to be closed,” the statement said, “and then the enemy must bear all the consequences of the future results.”

Earlier in the day, Mr. Obeida told the Associated Press that Israel at least must begin freeing the women and minors.

“Israel must understand that the resistance factions are serious in this matter. They will close this case if [Israel] doesn’t deal with the demands,” he said, adding that the militants would not compromise.

Mr. Obeida refused to specify what the militants would do if the ultimatum was ignored. Killing Cpl. Shalit, however, would remove their only leverage against Israel and likely would invite far harsher reprisals against Gaza.

“If, God forbid, they should hurt the soldier, our operations will be far, far worse,” Israeli Justice Minister Haim Ramon told Channel 2 television.

Mr. Olmert said the government would not cave in to extortion.

“There will be no negotiations to release prisoners,” his office said, adding that he holds the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority responsible for Cpl. Shalit’s safety.

But government and military officials said privately that Israel would pursue all options to have Cpl. Shalit returned. Israel has released prisoners before in lopsided exchanges for captured citizens or the bodies of soldiers killed in battle.

Mohammed Dahlan, a Palestinian legislator and close ally to moderate Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, said that the ultimatum was a negotiating tactic and that efforts to broker a compromise were continuing.

“What we care about now in the Gaza Strip is not to reach a point of no return,” he said. “Everyone has an interest in getting out of this crisis.”

The White House urged the militants to release Cpl. Shalit.

“It is the responsibility of Hamas to return the Israeli soldier. That’s how all this got started. We have also been encouraging Israel from the very beginning to practice restraint and continue to do so,” White House press secretary Tony Snow said.

Many Palestinians say they do not want Cpl. Shalit to be harmed, but the demand to free some of the 9,000 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel is popular here, and it would be difficult for the militants to release Cpl. Shalit without at least a token prisoner release.

“I think they should release the women and children and [the militants should] release the soldier. But without anything in return, they’ll kill him,” said Saked Abu Kosh, 30, a pharmacist in the southern town of Rafah.

Egypt has been trying to mediate the crisis, but its efforts have been complicated by confusion over who has the authority on the Palestinian side to make a deal. The Hamas-led government says it had nothing to do with the abduction.

The Hamas-linked militants who seized Cpl. Shalit are presumed to answer to the group’s leaders in Syria, but those in Damascus say they bear no responsibility for the soldier.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was in Saudi Arabia yesterday to coordinate with the Saudis on efforts to reach a deal over Cpl. Shalit. Mr. Mubarak has tried to enlist Syria’s help.

Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz warned Damascus that he held it responsible for Cpl. Shalit’s fate because the Syrian government harbored Hamas’ leaders.

“I suggest that [Syrian President] Bashar Assad, who is trying to operate with his eyes shut tight, open his eyes, because he is responsible,” Mr. Peretz said.

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