- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 27, 2006

TEL AVIV — After 24 hours of silence, Hamas militants holding an Israeli soldier in the Gaza Strip said they would provide information about his condition in return for the release of all Palestinian women and prisoners under the age of 18 held by Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert promptly dismissed the offer and warned that time was running out for the return of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, who was kidnapped on Sunday after his tank was raided by a group of guerrillas who infiltrated Israel by tunneling underneath the border.

The standoff threatens to draw Israel’s military back into the Gaza Strip nine months after it ended its occupation of the territory, as well as trigger widespread clashes between Israel and the Hamas-run Palestinian Authority.

“There will be no compromise. It’s not an issue of negotiation. The question of a prisoner release is not on the agenda of the government of Israel,” Mr. Olmert said at a meeting of the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem.

“The time remaining before a severe, comprehensive and serious operation is becoming shorter. We won’t wait forever. We won’t become the target of Hamas terrorist blackmail.”

To back up the warning, Israel massed tanks and armored personnel carriers at the Gaza border. On Sunday, Israel gave the Palestinians 48 hours to set Cpl. Shalit free before taking matters into its own hands.

Cpl. Shalit was snatched in a dawn raid from a post near the Kerem Shalom border crossing — which sits at the juncture of Israel, the Gaza Strip and Egypt. Two members of the tank crew were killed, as were two of the Palestinian gunmen.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said he would order Palestinian security forces to conduct house-to-house searches in Gaza to locate the captive. Mr. Abbas has been the focus of intense diplomatic pressure by Israeli officials, who have said they expect the Palestinian leader to secure Cpl. Shalit’s release.

Yuval Diskin, the head of Israel’s Shin Bet homeland security agency, threatened in talks with Mr. Abbas late Sunday that Israel would ensure that the Hamas-led government falls unless Cpl. Shalit is released alive, Agence France-Press reported.

Saeb Erekat, an aide to the president, said that Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh was cooperating in arranging the search, which would be led by Mr. Abbas’ presidential guard and include all security branches.

“We don’t know the location of the guy, and the Israelis don’t know the location, and that’s why it will require house to house,” said Mr. Erekat. “We have 1.3 million people in Gaza, and we are unable to locate this guy.”

Many believe the attack was ordered by Hamas hard-liner Khaled Meshal, who is based in Damascus, in order to derail talks on a power-sharing agreement between the Islamic militants and Mr. Abbas’ Fatah party.

Ghazi Hamad, a spokesman for Mr. Haniyeh, said that he had been informed the 19-year-old corporal is in good condition. He said that he hoped the kidnapping would be brought to an end soon.

In an interview with Israel’s Channel 2 television, Mr. Hamad claimed that Hamas government officials were holding discussions with Israeli officials. Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Mark Regev denied speculation of negotiations with Hamas.

“We’re not negotiating with Hamas,” he said. “Hamas must understand that there are serious consequences [if the soldier is not released] unconditionally and immediately.”

Jordanian and Egyptian officials have been seeking out the captors, but Israeli officials denied sending any third-party messages to the Islamic militants.

At the northern Israel home of the kidnapped soldier, Noam Shalit made an appeal on behalf of the family for his son’s well being.

“We hope that the kidnappers take care of him,” he said. “All of the kidnappers have families … so we hope they understand the pain of the family.”

The kidnapping has some Israelis asking whether their government should negotiate with Hamas. Israel conducted indirect negotiations with Iranian-backed Hezbollah to secure the 2004 release of Elhanan Tennenbaum and the bodies of three kidnapped soldiers in exchange for hundreds of prisoners.

Arab members of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, offered to travel to Gaza to mediate the release of the soldier. Meanwhile, an Israeli settler rabbi called on the government to engage the Islamic militants.

“There is a willingness on the part of the Palestinian government to bring about the release of the soldier, through a full-blown deal that would include a cease-fire” and a prisoner release, said Rabbi Menachem Froman, from the West Bank settlement of Tekoa.

Of the thousands of Palestinian prisoners in Israel jails, about 95 are women and 313 are minors.

Analysts said that the likelihood of Israel engaging Hamas in talks is remote.

“Israel is not going to negotiate directly with the Hamas on the release of soldier, although they have negotiated with kidnappers before,” said Gershon Baskin, who heads the Israel Palestinian Center for Research and Information. “This is the worst situation for Israel to negotiate with kidnappers, there’s no end to it, you’re just inviting kidnappings every day.”

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide