CAIRO, Egypt – Arabs across the Mideast on Wednesday criticized an Israeli ground offensive into Gaza aimed at pressuring Palestinian militants to release a captured soldier, even as Arab leaders continued to work behind-the-scenes to get the soldier freed.
In Cairo, the government was trying to mediate a solution to get the soldier freed in exchange for the release of some Palestinian detainees "before Gaza is destroyed," said one official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
Egypt has been talking directly with the exiled leader of the Palestinian militant group Hamas, Khaled Mashaal, who is in Syria, to push him to faciliate the release of the soldier, Egyptian officials said Tuesday. Egypt's intelligence chief Omar Suleiman talked with Mashaal three times Tuesday in an attempt to persuade him to release the Israeli soldier, the officials said.
But no breakthrough was yet in sight.
An aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said both Abbas and Egyptian officials also had called Syrian President Bashar Assad to ask him to persuade Mashaal to free the soldier. Assad promised to do so, but there have been no results, the aide said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was discussing private talks.
Mashaal's alleged role came to the fore Wednesday when Israeli Justice Minister Haim Ramon said Israel thinks he ordered the soldier's capture and thus would try to assassinate him.
"He is definitely in our sights ... he is a target," Ramon told Army Radio.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Hamas' representative in Lebanon, who is close to Mashaal, repeated the group's previous denials that Mashaal had ordered the attack, and said Israel should think twice about assassinating him.
"They have to think thoroughly about the consequences, which could be bigger than they imagine," the Lebanon representative, Osama Hamdan, told the AP.
Mashaal himself has not spoken publicly since the Sunday kidnapping. Some Palestinian officials suggested that he had gone underground for fear that he might be targeted by Israel either in his offices in Damascus, or kidnapped while traveling by plane.
Even as the crisis unfolded, there was also some faint hope across the Arab world about a long-sought Palestinian political breakthrough Tuesday that led to Hamas' implicit recognition of Israel.
But most Arab commentators lamented that the agreeement had been overshadowed by the crisis over the soldier's kidnapping.
"Hamas' implicit recognition of Israel is a historic step," the Arab News in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, wrote in an editorial typical of those across the region.
"Unfortunately the timing of this profound change could not have been worse ... Hard-liners on both sides can only be pleased by this fresh confrontation, which threatens once again to rob the political process of what little momentum still remains in it," the paper said.
Indeed, much attention was focused on Israel's first ground offensive into Gaza since it pulled its soldiers and settlers out last summer.
"With the abduction of the Israeli soldiers, the whole rules of the game have been changed," said Samir Ghattass, head of the Cairo-based Middle East Forum for Peace and Security. "Israel wants to prove now that its deterrence strategy has not eroded," he told The Associated Press.
Egypt has moved 2,500 extra guards to its border with Gaza as a precaution in case Israel expands its offensive, which could cause Palestinian refugees to flood into Egypt.
Security officials in Egypt were preventing many Western news organizations, including The Associated Press, from sending photographers or reporters to the border region Wednesday, but an AP reporter at the scene said the area was mostly quiet.
Abbas deplored the Israeli incursion as a "crime against humanity," and a leading Hamas politician issued a call to arms against the Israeli troops.
Lebanese Foreign Minister Fawzi Salloukh criticized the "suspicious silence" of the world and called on the U.N. Security Council "to take a firm stand that ends the aggression on the Palestinian people."
A Palestinian legislator, Hanan Ashrawi, who was in Beirut to meet with Salloukh, accused Israel of "using the issue of the soldier as a pretext ... Israel is acting according to a specific plan."
In the Gulf, the Arabic daily Akhbar Arab in Abu Dhabi also called the soldier's case an excuse by Israel "to launch an all-out criminal operations against the Palestinian people and assassination of its leaders."
"It is regrettable that when Israel keeps over 8,000 Palestinians behind bars, no single voice comes out of the international Security Council to condemn such an inhuman act," the paper said.