Olmert promises ‘broad’ offensive after Israeli soldier’s kidnapping
JERUSALEM – With troops poised to invade Gaza, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Monday ruled out bargaining with the captors of an Israeli soldier and promised a “broad and ongoing” military offensive.But large-scale army action appeared unlikely. Officials said they were pursuing a diplomatic solution and conceded that a broad attack would threaten the life of the 19-year-old hostage captured Sunday.After more than 24 hours of silence, the militants claiming to hold Cpl. Gilad Shalit issued their first demands Monday. The groups, linked to the Hamas-led Palestinian government, said Israel should release all imprisoned Palestinian women and children under 18 in return for information about Shalit.Olmert rejected the demand. Addressing Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, he charged that the Palestinian attack on an army post at a Gaza crossing and the abduction of the soldier were part of a “murderous, hateful, fanatical Islamic extremist desire to destroy the state of Israel.””This is not a matter of negotiations, this is not a matter of bargaining,” he declared. “Release of prisoners is absolutely not on the agenda of the Israeli government.”Shalit was seized at a military post near the Gaza border by militants who infiltrated Israel through a tunnel. The attack was the first successful infiltration by militants since Israel withdrew from Gaza in September and immediately threatened to plunge the region into a major flare-up of violence.Speaking earlier to a tourism conference in Jerusalem, Olmert said he held the entire Palestinian leadership responsible for Shalit’s safety and warned that his patience was wearing thin.”I gave the orders to our military commanders to prepare the army for a broad and ongoing military operation to strike the terrorist leaders and all those involved,” he said. “There will be immunity for no one.”Military officials said elite brigades and armored forces, backed by tanks, were sent to the frontier, where thousands of soldiers already are deployed.The only concrete measure Olmert announced was closing off Gaza.Egyptian security officials said they have posted 2,500 police on the border to head off a flood of refugees if Israel invades Gaza. They called the move precautionary.With Israeli intelligence showing that Shalit was not seriously wounded, defense officials said there were no immediate plans for a massive ground incursion. Although Israel frequently carries out air raids in Gaza, ground troops have entered the area only three times – all briefly – since last year’s pullout.However, the officials said a limited operation could begin in the coming days. Such operations could include a rescue attempt or a limited mission meant to pressure Hamas to free the soldier. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a moderate who has repeatedly clashed with Hamas, was working with Egyptian mediators and Arab and Western leaders to locate the soldier.Hamas government spokesman Ghazi Hamad said he had information Shalit was alive and urged the captors to keep him safe.”I think we are interested in avoiding any confrontation or bloodshed,” he told The Associated Press.In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack called for release of the soldier and restraint on all sides.The abduction delivered a blow to Abbas’ efforts to coax Hamas into accepting a plan implicitly recognizing Israel. Abbas, elected separately last year, has endorsed the plan in hopes of lifting economic sanctions against Hamas and opening the way for new peace talks.The crisis also exposed divisions within Hamas’ ranks. The group maintains separate political and military wings, and political leaders based in Syria are more extreme than many leaders in the West Bank and Gaza.In a closed briefing to lawmakers, Brig. Gen. Yossi Beidatz, a top Israeli intelligence official, said Hamas’ leaders were divided about what to do with the soldier, participants said. He said the more moderate elements, including Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, consider the soldier a “hot potato” they should get rid of quickly.Hamad said talk of a split in Hamas was “a big lie.” However, he said the political leadership in Gaza, including Haniyeh, was not warned of the assault plans beforehand.The statement demanding the inmates’ release – about 500 people in all – was signed by Hamas’ military wing and two offshoots of the small Popular Resistance Committees, which has strong links to Hamas. It offered information about Shalit but no guarantees of his safe return.Popular Resistance Committees spokesman Abu Mujahid confirmed the authenticity of the statement from the Saladdin Brigade, the Army of Islam and Hamas’ military wing.Palestinian militants previously have tried to use captured soldiers to win prisoners’ releases, though Israel rarely has caved in. Israel now holds an estimated 8,000 Palestinians, many of them Hamas militants.In an interview with AP Television News, a masked man claiming to be a member of the Army of Islam said the group was formed a year ago, and Sunday’s abduction was its first operation.He said the attack was retribution for Israel’s assassination of two Popular Resistance Committees leaders and a beach explosion that killed eight civilians. The man read verses from the Quran and was flanked by two M-16 automatic weapons.”If there is a missing soldier like the Zionist government claims, it should come begging to the Palestinians, who aim to liberate the prisoners, all the prisoners, from the aggressive occupation’s prisons and liberate the land,” the militant said.His claim to be an Army of Islam member could not immediately be verified.Abu Mujahid said the operation was planned by Jamal Abu Samhadana, who was killed June 8 in an Israeli airstrike shortly after accepting a senior security position with the Hamas government.Shalit was the first Israeli soldier captured by Palestinian militants in 12 years, and the fate of the quiet, bespectacled teen gripped the country. Large pictures of Shalit’s boyish face appeared on the front pages of local newspapers.”Bring Gilad Home,” said the banner headline of Yediot Ahronot, the country’s largest daily.Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni asked Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to press Abbas to secure Shalit’s release.Livni met with foreign ambassadors from U.N. Security Council member states to urge them to use any leverage with the Palestinian Authority to free the hostage, Regev said.In Tel Aviv, the French Embassy confirmed that the soldier holds French citizenship and said Paris was working to win his release.Shalit’s family pleaded with the captors Monday to treat him humanely and to remember he has a loving family who misses him dearly.Noam Shalit, in an interview with AP Television News, described his son as a quiet, helpful boy who followed his older brother into the military’s armored corps.”The only thing we have left right now is hope, nothing more,” he said.In Gaza City and the West Bank town of Ramallah, dozens of relatives of Palestinians held in Israeli prisons urged militants to hold Shalit until Israel agreed to a large-scale release.”Kidnap a soldier and free 100 in return!” the crowd said. “Twist the Zionists’ arms! Hope they can learn!”
Support Local Journalism
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.
User Legend: Moderator Trusted User