Militants gave Israel 24 hours starting Monday to begin releasing hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, implying they would kill an abducted Israeli soldier if their demands were not met.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert rejected any negotiations with the militants, and the army pressed ahead with its Gaza offensive. Privately, though, some Israeli officials said the government had not ruled out any options to win Cpl. Gilad Shalit’s freedom.
Israel has pounded Gaza with airstrikes and artillery shells for nearly a week in an unsuccessful effort to force the militants to release Shalit. Israel sent a small force of tanks into northern Gaza on Monday, raising fears it was gearing up for a large invasion.
After Shalit was seized in a June 25 raid on an army post that left two comrades dead, his captors demanded Israel free all imprisoned Palestinian women and minors in exchange for information about him. They later increased their demand to include the release of a further 1,000 prisoners.
Early Monday, Hamas’ military wing _ one of the three groups holding him _ issued a statement giving Israel until 6 a.m. Tuesday (11 p.m. EDT Monday) to “start” freeing the prisoners.
If Israel doesn’t comply, “we will consider the soldier’s case to be closed,” the statement said, “and then the enemy must bear all the consequences of the future results.”
Abu Obeida, spokesman for the Hamas military wing, later told The Associated Press that Israel must at least begin freeing the women and minors.
“Israel must understand that the resistance factions are serious in this matter. They will close this case if (Israel) doesn’t deal with the demands,” he said, adding that the militants would not compromise.
Abu Obeida refused to specify what the militants would do if the ultimatum was ignored. Killing Shalit, however, would remove their only leverage against Israel and likely would invite far harsher reprisals against Gaza.
“If God forbid, they should hurt the soldier, our operations will be far, far worse,” Israeli Justice Minister Haim Ramon told Channel 2 television.
Olmert said the government would not cave in to extortion.
“There will be no negotiations to release prisoners,” his office said in a statement, adding that he holds the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority responsible for Shalit’s safety.
But government and military officials said privately that Israel would pursue all options to get Shalit back. Israel has released prisoners before in lopsided exchanges for captured citizens or the dead bodies of soldiers killed in battle.
Mohammed Dahlan, a Palestinian legislator and close ally to moderate President Mahmoud Abbas, said the ultimatum was a negotiating tactic and that efforts to broker a compromise were continuing.
“What we care about now in the Gaza Strip is not to reach a point of no return,” he said. “Everyone has an interest in getting out of this crisis.”
The White House urged the militants to release Shalit.
“It is the responsibility of Hamas to return the Israeli soldier. That’s how all this got started. We have also been encouraging Israel from the very beginning to practice restraint and continue to do so,” White House Press secretary Tony Snow said.
In their statement, Shalit’s captors accused Israel of not “learning lessons” from the fate of other kidnapped soldiers. The last Israeli soldier kidnapped by Hamas, Nachshon Wachsman, died in 1994 in an Israeli commando raid on his captors’ Jerusalem hideout.
Wachsman’s mother, Esther, accused Israel’s leaders of a lack of candor in dealing with hostage cases.
“I am not calling for the release of murderers, but (Israel’s leaders) should not insult our intelligence because they have negotiated and they have given in to terror,” she wrote in the Haaretz newspaper.
Many Palestinians say they do not want Shalit to be harmed. But the demand to free some of the 9,000 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel is very popular here, and it would be difficult for the militants to release Shalit without at least a token prisoner release.
“I think they should release the women and children and (the militants should) release the soldier. But without anything in return, they’ll kill him,” said Saked Abu Kosh, 30, a pharmacist in the southern town of Rafah.
Egypt has been trying to mediate the crisis, but its efforts have been complicated by confusion over who has the authority on the Palestinian side to make a deal. The Hamas-led government says it had nothing to do with the abduction.
The Hamas-linked militants who seized Shalit are presumed to answer to the group’s leaders in Syria, but those in Damascus say they bear no responsibility for the soldier.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was in Saudi Arabia on Monday to coordinate with the Saudis on efforts to reach a deal over Shalit. Mubarak already has tried to enlist Syria’s help.
Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz warned Damascus that he held it responsible for Shalit’s fate because the Syrian government harbored Hamas’ leaders.
“I suggest that (Syrian President) Bashar Assad, who is trying to operate with his eyes shut tight, open his eyes, because he is responsible,” Peretz said.
Dahlan spoke as the Palestinian parliament held its first session since Israel arrested dozens of top Hamas officials in the West Bank, including eight Cabinet ministers and 26 lawmakers, late last week.
“By arresting those lawmakers and ministers, Israel is trying to hijack the Palestinian political regime, but our people will protect our political regime,” parliament speaker Abdel Aziz Duaik said.
Meanwhile, Israel continued its operations in Gaza, launching airstrikes throughout the territory. Thousands of soldiers seized vacant areas near southern Gaza last week, and Israeli tanks and troops took up positions outside northern Gaza early Monday and pounded the area with artillery.
At daybreak, a small force of Israeli tanks entered northern Gaza. The military said it was a “limited” mission to find explosives and tunnels near the border fence.
As that operation proceeded, Israeli aircraft killed a Hamas gunman who was carrying explosives near troops in northern Gaza, the army and Palestinian officials said.
Also Monday, Israel closed the Karni cargo crossing into Gaza, citing a security threat, just a day after Israel reopened it so badly needed humanitarian supplies could reach the coastal strip. The crossing is the main gateway for goods to enter Gaza.