Hamas threat to kill soldier creates crisis for Israel, PLO


JERUSALEM -- With a young man's life and the future of peace talks on the line, Israel and the new Palestinian self-rule authority were locked yesterday in their most severe crisis to date after the abduction of an Israeli soldier by Islamic radicals from the Hamas group.

Tensions were greatly heightened yesterday after the kidnappers released a harrowing videotape in which the soldier, Cpl. Nahshon Waxman, said that he would be killed unless Israel met a Hamas demand for the release of more than 200 Palestinian prisoners. In a videotape that was made public Tuesday, the captors set a deadline of 9 p.m. tomorrow.

"I ask you to do what you can so I come out of here alive," a frightened Corporal Waxman, who holds dual American-Israeli citizenship, said in an appeal to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

But in line with customary practice, Israeli officials said they were not about to yield. In the past, Israel has not negotiated with kidnappers of soldiers in Israel, though it has exchanged thousands of Arab prisoners for far fewer Israeli combat soldiers taken prisoner in Lebanon.

Corporal Waxman is the 10th Israeli to have been kidnapped by Islamic militants since 1989. All the previous captives were killed.

For a second time in less than 24 hours, Mr. Rabin phoned Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and said that he held the Palestinian leader personally responsible for the soldier's safety.

Israeli officials said they were certain that Corporal Waxman, 20, was being held in the Gaza Strip; Gaza and Jericho, on the West Bank, have been under Palestinian self-rule since May.

Since Mr. Arafat is in charge, they said, it is up to him to find the soldier and win his freedom.

But PLO spokesmen in Gaza, while saying that Mr. Arafat deplored the kidnapping, insisted that the corporal was not in Gaza or Jericho, but in Israel or elsewhere in the West Bank, and that they could not be held responsible.

Israel chose to stand firm, however, especially since the abduction closely followed a Hamas terrorist attack Sunday night in central Jerusalem, where gunmen killed 2 people and wounded 13 others.

Peres' warning

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said this was the toughest test yet of the Israel-PLO autonomy accord.

"The way this matter is handled will have grave implications for the future," Mr. Peres said.

After previous killings, Israeli leaders had insisted that they would not let terrorism deflect them from peace talks with the PLO. But this time they indefinitely suspended talks on future Palestinian elections in the territories, and they sealed off Gaza, keeping 30,000 Palestinian laborers from getting to jobs in Israel.

"This is not a single instance," Education Minister Amnon Rubenstein said after an emergency Cabinet meeting. "We are dealing with a series of crimes and murders of the most brutal kind, and we have not seen serious action taken by the Palestinian authority."

Israeli Cabinet ministers said they regarded the crisis as Mr. Arafat's biggest test, to prove that he could keep his commitment to control anti-Israeli attackers.

Although scores of Islamic militants and supporters were arrested by the Palestinian police in Gaza after several killings of Israelis during the summer, they were quickly released and the issue was dropped.

Mr. Arafat said nothing in public.

Christopher's 'outrage'

In Jordan yesterday morning, Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher said that he had phoned the PLO leader to express his "personal outrage" over the abduction.

But a senior Arafat aide, Tayeb Abdel-Rahim, argued that it was "not logical or realistic" to put responsibility on the shoulders of the Palestinian authority, which supervises self-rule in Gaza and Jericho.

Another adviser, Nabil Aburdeineh, said that Hamas was trying to embarrass the authority and that Mr. Arafat saw the latest incident as "a direct challenge."

This put the PLO leader in the difficult position of figuring out what he considers the greater risk: offending Israel and perhaps crippling future talks, or cracking down on Hamas and thus alienating many Gazans who support it.

The videotape made public yesterday gripped a country already horrified by Corporal Waxman's abduction. The tape, delivered to Reuters in Jerusalem, was brief and of poor quality.

The soldier, who was kidnapped Sunday while hitchhiking not far from Tel Aviv, plainly was dazed and frightened as he sat with his hands tied behind his back. Behind him stood a Hamas captor, holding an automatic rifle and the soldier's identity card, prompting the young soldier to ask for release of the Palestinians.

"If not, they will kill me," said Corporal Waxman.

"What do you have to say to your mother?" the Hamas man said.

"If my parents are watching me, I am all right now," the soldier said into the camera.

"I hope to come back to you if Rabin decides to release their prisoners."

His mother, Esther Waxman, who moved to Israel from New York City in the 1960s, watched the videotape in her apartment in northern Jerusalem. With other family members around her, she rocked gently and sobbed.

She also pleaded with the kidnappers: "We have the same God . . . and I hope they return him safe and sound, for God's sake."

Hamas' founder, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, one of 200 prisoners whose release the kidnappers are demanding, also called on them yesterday to spare Corporal Waxman's life. "Killing him is not useful, and our religion orders us to take care of him and his life," Sheik Yassin said in an interview on Israel Television.

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