Published June 26, 2006
JERUSALEM – Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert ruled out negotiations to free a captured Israeli soldier Monday as his nation's tanks and troops gathered along the Gaza Strip border in anticipation of an operation against Palestinian militants.
"This is not a matter of negotiations, this is not a matter of bargaining," Olmert told a group of Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. Cpl. Gilad Shalit, a dual French-Israeli citizen, was seized by Palestinian gunmen in a cross-border raid on Sunday.
Olmert said the attack and the capture of the soldier were evidence of extremist Muslim desires to destroy the state of Israel.
He said Israel withdrew "completely" from Gaza last year, and "anyone who fires from the other side of the border, anyone who caries out any attack against Israeli citizens, does so from a fanatical desire to destroy the Jewish state."
Earlier, Olmert called the troop deployment the beginning of a "broad and ongoing" operation against Palestinian militants.
Officials on both sides have been working diplomatic channels since Shalit's abduction.
In the first word from the captors, three militant groups demanded Monday that Israel release all Palestinian women and minor prisoners in exchange for the soldier. A spokesman for one of the Hamas-linked groups said the message was authentic.
Speaking to a tourism conference in Jerusalem, Olmert said Israel's patience was wearing thin and that he held the entire Palestinian leadership responsible for Shalit's safety.
"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. "It should be clear. There will be immunity for no one."
But Israel was not expected to launch a large operation as long as there was a chance of bringing the soldier home, and Olmert's language, referring to preparations, reflected that.
Militants affiliated with the ruling Hamas party and tiny allied factions abducted Shalit early Sunday after tunneling into Israel and attacking a military post. Two other soldiers were killed, and three militants died in an ensuing shootout.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was working intensely with Egyptian mediators, Arab and Western leaders to locate the soldier, officials said, while a spokesman for the rival Hamas-led Palestinian government said he had information Shalit was alive and urged his captors to keep him safe.
Abbas, joined by senior security advisers, was monitoring the situation from a special situation room, officials said.
Despite Abbas' ongoing efforts to pressure his Hamas rivals into moderation, Olmert said he blamed the entire Palestinian leadership, including the president, responsible for the spiraling violence.
"It should be clear that we see the Palestinian Authority on all its levels, from the chairman on downward, as the responsible element for this operation and all that happens from it," Olmert said, referring to Abbas.
Earlier Monday, Israel massed special units, tanks and infantry troops along the border with Gaza.
Palestinian lawmaker Saeb Erekat, a close aide to Abbas, called for restraint "at a time when President Abbas is exerting maximum efforts in order to acquire the release of the soldier, alive and unharmed."
The tensions have raised the possibility that Israel could renew its policy of assassinating Hamas political leaders, a practice Israel halted after a February 2005 cease-fire.
Hamas lawmaker Mushir al-Masri warned Israel against any "stupid acts."
"This will blow up the area again," he said. "We also warn the Zionists against assassinating any leader because we believe the armed wings of the resistance groups will not remain silent."
The kidnapping delivered a blow to Abbas' efforts to coax Hamas into accepting a plan that implicitly recognizes Israel. Abbas, elected separately last year, has endorsed the plan in the hope of lifting crippling economic sanctions against Hamas and opening the way for new peace talks.
It also has exposed divisions within Hamas' ranks. The group maintains separate political and military wings, and political leaders based in Syria are more extreme than many of the leaders in the West Bank and Gaza.
Ghazi Hamad, spokesman for the Hamas government, said the political leadership was not warned ahead of time of the assault plans. However, he called talk of a split in Hamas "a big lie."
He said Hamas was working with Abbas and Egypt to resolve the situation. "I think we are interested in avoiding any confrontation or bloodshed," he told The Associated Press.
In an earlier radio interview, Hamad said he believed the soldier is still alive and appealed for his safe release. Hamad spoke to Israel's Army Radio station in Hebrew, which he learned in Israeli prison.
A senior Israeli army officer told the soldier's family that he was taken alive, but there was evidence that he was wounded. His farther said he had been told the soldier was wounded but apparently not seriously.
A high-ranking military intelligence official, Yossi Beidatz, told a parliamentary committee Monday that Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas was in close contact with Hamas' Syria-based leader, Khaled Mashaal, and Shalit's captors to secure his immediate release, said lawmaker Ran Cohen.
Committee chairman Tzachi Hanegbi said Olmert told him he would not negotiate with the kidnappers.
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.
Military officials said elite brigades and armored forces, backed by tanks, were sent to the frontier, where thousands of soldiers are regularly deployed. Troops sent into Gaza after the attack blew up the tunnel used by the infiltrators, sending a huge pillar of black smoke into the air.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni asked U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to press Abbas, the Palestinian president, to secure Shalit's release.
On Monday, Livni convened an urgent session of foreign ambassadors from U.N. Security Council member states to urge them to use any leverage with the Palestinian Authority to bring about the soldier's release, ministry spokesman Mark Regev said.
"If our serviceman is released immediately, that will do much to de-escalate the crisis," he said.
In Tel Aviv, the French Embassy confirmed the soldier holds French citizenship and said Paris was working to win his release.
Shalit's family broke its silence on Monday to plead with his captors to treat him humanely and to remember he has a loving family who misses him dearly.
Noam Shalit, in an interview with Associated Press Television, 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, dozens of relatives of the 8,000 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons urged militants to hold Shalit until Israel agrees to a large-scale release of jailed Palestinians.
"Kidnap a soldier and free 100 in return," the crowd said. "Twist the Zionists' hands. Hope they can learn."
In Ramallah, relatives of Palestinian prisoners demanded that their leaders insist on release of all the prisoners in exchange for the soldier.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.