Ultimatum raises fears for abducted soldier
ISRAEL reacted with an array of threats yesterday after militants in the Gaza Strip implied they would kill a captured Israeli soldier unless it began releasing Palestinian prisoners from its jails.
The militants' ultimatum said ominously that they "will consider the soldier's case to be closed" unless prisoner releases began by 6am local time (4am BST) today.
"The enemy must bear all the consequences of the future results" of not responding, said the statement, signed by Izzedin al-Qassam Brigades - Hamas's military wing - the Popular Resistance Committees and the Islamic Army, the three groups that claim to have seized Corporal Gilad Shalit, 19, during a cross-border raid on 25 June.
Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, said: "Israel will not give in to extortion by the Palestinian Authority and the Hamas government, which are led by murderous terror organisations. We will not conduct any negotiations on the release of prisoners. The Palestinian Authority bears full responsibility for the welfare of Gilad Shalit and for returning him safe and sound to Israel."
Roni Bar-On, a minister who is a close ally of Mr Olmert, warned "the kidnappers will pay a price that has never been paid before if they harm the soldier", while Amir Peretz, the defence minister, directed a warning at Bashar Assad, Syria's president, saying he would be held responsible if Corporal Shalit was harmed. Israel believes the militants holding Cpl Shalit are acting under the orders of Khaled Mashaal, the Damascus-based director of Hamas's political bureau.
Israeli troops entered northern Gaza yesterday, following an incursion into the southern part of the strip last week. The army said a small force of tanks and bulldozers was on a "limited" mission to find explosives and tunnels. Israeli troops have pounding Gaza by land, air and sea since last Tuesday in what the army says is a bid to gain Cpl Shalit's release and to put a stop to cross-border rocket attacks
With the ultimatum clock ticking, Dan Halutz, the Israeli army's chief of staff, visited the Shalit family in northern Israel. He told reporters he rejected the militants' ultimatum but did not rule out talks for a future prisoner swap. "We ... will consider all there is to be considered, then reach conclusions and act on them," he said.
Cpl Shalit's father, Noam, began to criticise the government's handling of the crisis, hinting that his son's life should be given priority over Mr Olmert's stated principle of not caving in to terrorists. "We asked the chief of staff, as the country's first soldier, to represent the interest of Gilad, who is a fighter dispatched by the army and the decision-makers," he said. "Of course, Gilad's interest is to return home healthy and sound as soon as possible."
Mr Shalit also took issue with a cabinet minister's statement that Israel needed to use this crisis to restore its deterrent capability after making lop-sided prisoner exchanges with terrorist groups in the past. "It seems to me hallucinatory to say that the state of Israel can restore its deterrent capability on the back of my son Gilad," he said.
It was not clear how many of the approximately 10,000 prisoners in Israeli jails the Palestinian groups are demanding. In their first statement last week, they called for the release of some 500 women and children prisoners but then raised the demand to 1,000.
Atef Adwan, the Palestinian minister of refugee affairs, said it was possible the ultimatum was not a threat to kill Cpl Shalit. He believed the captors were merely warning that they would cease communication with Egyptian mediators trying to resolve the crisis.
Uzi Dayan, a reserve general who used to head Israel's National Council, said the abductors should be reminded that Ismail Haniya, the Palestinian prime minister, would be held responsible for any harm to Cpl Shalit and that Israel was holding 64 Hamas ministers, MPs and officials, whom it arrested in the West Bank last week.
In Ramallah, Aziz Dweik, the speaker of the Palestinian parliament, chaired a session aimed at showing the legislature's work would continue, despite 37 of its 132 members being held in Israeli prisons. "Clearly, I tell the Israelis: release those you are holding ... our glorious prisoners and our kidnapped children, in exchange for our releasing your prisoners. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth," he said.
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