Tensions rise in Mideast


JERUSALEM -- Israeli tanks and troops were massed at Israel's border with the Gaza Strip this morning, preparing to launch a military operation against Palestinian militants, including members of Hamas, in retaliation for the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier Sunday.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and diplomats from Egypt and other countries were working feverishly to negotiate the release of the captured soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit. The 19-year-old Israeli was abducted by Palestinian militants during a raid on an Israeli military post that left two other Israeli soldiers dead and significantly heightened tensions between Israel and the Palestinians.

Less than a year ago, Israel evacuated its settlers and soldiers from Gaza with fanfare, on the assumption that it would mark a new beginning for Israel and the Palestinians - a chance for the Gaza Strip to prosper after the 38-year Israeli occupation, for Israel to disentangle itself from Gaza's 1.4 million Palestinians and for the two sides to restart peace talks.

But 10 months later, those hopes appear to have unraveled. Palestinians and Israelis were back in their familiar roles, steeling themselves for a new round of violence.

The fate of the young, bespectacled soldier gripped Israel, which in the past has gone to great lengths to rescue its soldiers. Palestinians braced for the worst, with many officials of Hamas, the militant Islamic group that controls the Palestinian government, going into hiding. Shalit is the first soldier captured by Palestinians in 12 years.

Speaking yesterday in Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he held the entire leadership of the Palestinian Authority responsible for the kidnapping.

"I gave an order to military leaders to prepare our troops, so that they are ready for comprehensive and ongoing military action in order to strike at the terror organizations, their commanders and anyone involved in terror," he said. "Let it be clear, we will find them all, wherever they are, and they know it. Let it be clear that no one will be immune."

Palestinian militants, including some from Hamas, abducted Shalit after tunneling under a Gaza border fence and into Israel to attack a military post. Two Israeli soldiers and two Palestinian militants were killed in the firefight.

Hamas officials took partial responsibility for the raid, as did the Popular Resistance Committees and a previously unknown group calling itself the Army of Islam.

In a leaflet signed by the three groups, the militants said they would release information on Shalit if Israel freed all Palestinian women and those under 18 from its prisons. Israel has in custody about 95 Palestinian women and 313 other inmates under 18.

Israeli officials immediately rejected the demand.

"This is not a matter of negotiations. This is not a matter of bargaining," Olmert said.

Abbas, the Palestinian president, condemned the kidnapping and attack, and demanded Shalit's immediate release. He was also working with Egyptian officials - who often serve as go-betweens for Israel and the Palestinians - to try to negotiate the soldier's freedom.

The kidnapping comes as Abbas was trying to persuade Hamas to sign an agreement that would, in effect, recognize Israel and thereby end an international economic blockade that has crippled the Palestinian economy.

Hamas' involvement in the raid, however, only widened the divisions between Abbas and the Hamas-led government, which refuses to recognize Israel.

But Hamas' response to the crisis also offered a glimpse into the divisions within the militant group, which has separate military and political wings, as well as leaders in Syria who are often more radical than Hamas officials in Gaza or the West Bank.

Some analysts speculated that the orders for the raid came from Khaled Mashaal, Hamas' leader in Syria, bypassing the local Hamas leaders.

Israel held Hamas primarily responsible for the raid and the kidnapping, but there was confusion about which group was holding Shalit, his condition and where he was being held.

According to Israeli news reports, a senior military intelligence officer briefing members of Israel's parliament said that Shalit, who was lightly wounded in the raid, was held by senior members of Hamas' military wing.

The intelligence officer said that militants planned to abduct an Israeli soldier and use him as a bargaining chip to obtain the release of Palestinian prisoners. The officer added that there were disputes between Hamas' military and political wings and its leaders in Syria about how to resolve the crisis.

Ghazi Hamad, a spokesman for the Hamas government, said yesterday that Shalit was alive and called on his captors to free him unharmed.

Hamas lawmaker Mushir al-Masri, meanwhile, warned Israel against launching a military operation.

"This will blow up the area again," wire services reported him saying. "We also warned the Zionists against assassinating any leader, because we believe the armed wings of the resistance groups will not remain silent."

In Israel, the raid and kidnapping renewed debate over Olmert's plan to withdraw tens of thousands of Jewish settlers from the West Bank. Critics pointed to the raid as evidence of the failure of last summer's withdrawal from Gaza to bring calm to Israel's borders.

In the recent weeks, Israel has struggled to develop an effective response to volleys of rockets fired by Palestinian militants into Israeli communities near the Gaza border. Olmert's critics argue that an evacuation of the West Bank would bring militants closer to Israeli population centers, making the cities more vulnerable to attack.

Whatever the military response to the kidnapping, there would be no reoccupation of Gaza, Israeli officials said.

"We didn't leave the Gaza Strip last year just to go back again," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israel's Foreign Ministry. "We've got no interest in an escalation. We have no interest in a deterioration of the situation. When we pulled out last year there was a certain amount of hope."

Now, he said, the pressure is on Abbas - also known as Abu Mazen - to secure the release of the kidnapped soldier and demonstrate his ability to confront the extremists.

"This is a moment of opportunity for Abu Mazen," Regev said. "If he does succeed in bringing about the release of the hostage, that will be a very significant confidence-building measure that will create a very positive momentum. Out of the crisis could come some good. You could have a situation whereby the re-energized peace process moves ahead.

"But the opposite, unfortunately, is also true," he said. "If we see a Palestinian leadership incapable of taking serious steps to try to prevent a crisis, then that also has implications as far as negotiations go."


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