Deadline passes with no word on Israeli captive

Militants called for release of Palestinians by today


JERUSALEM -- The deadline set by Palestinian militant groups holding an Israeli soldier for Israel to begin releasing Palestinian prisoners or "bear all the consequences" passed early today without any word on the fate of the 19-year-old captive.

Abu Muthana, a spokesman for one of the Hamas-linked groups holding Cpl. Gilad Shalit, said that because Israel had ignored their deadline, the militants won't release any information about the soldier. He declined to say whether Shalit is alive.

Israeli officials had rejected the ultimatum made by the militants, including the armed wing of the governing Hamas movement, which captured the soldier last week.

"Israel will not give in to extortion by the Palestinian Authority and the Hamas government, which are led by [a] murderous terrorist organization," Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said yesterday in a statement. "We will not conduct any negotiations on the release of prisoners."

The militant groups are seeking the release of 1,000 Palestinian prisoners and had demanded last week that Israel free all Palestinian women and prisoners under age 18.

Ghazi Hamad, a spokesman for the Hamas-led government, said the ultimatum was meant as a warning to Israel. "I think that they want for the Israeli side to understand that it is responsible for the life of the soldier. If [Israel] perseveres with a course of violence and escalation and killing people in Gaza, people say that the situation will be grave - very grave," Hamad told Israel Radio.

Since Shalit was abducted June 25 there has been little information on his condition or even any proof that he is alive. The pan-Arab newspaper Al Hayat reported yesterday that an Egyptian security team had visited the Israeli soldier in Gaza and said he was being treated by a Palestinian doctor for "three bullet wounds." The paper did not say when the visit took place.

The militants did not specify the consequences of failing to meet their deadline, but there was wide speculation in the news media that Shalit might be killed.

"We give the Zionist enemy until 6:00 tomorrow morning, Tuesday, July 4," the groups said in a statement faxed to news agencies. "If the enemy does not respond to our humanitarian demands mentioned in previous leaflets on the conditions for dealing with the case of the missing soldier ... we will consider the soldier's case to be closed. And then the enemy must bear all the consequences of the future results."

Israeli Justice Minister Haim Ramon warned yesterday of a harsh military response if Shalit were harmed by his captors.

"If, God forbid, they should hurt the soldier, our operations will be far, far worse," Ramon told Israel's Channel 2 TV.

During the past week, the Israeli military has conducted a sweeping operation in the Gaza Strip, targeting bridges, roads and a power station, with airstrikes against the offices of Hamas officials, including that of Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.

Early today, Israeli aircraft hit the student council building at the Islamic University in Gaza City, witnesses said, badly damaging it. No one was hurt. The university is a Hamas stronghold.

Thousands of Israeli troops with tanks and other armored vehicles are poised on Gaza's borders, awaiting orders to launch a new phase of the campaign that would likely involve attacks against areas in northern Gaza from which militants have launched homemade rockets against Israel, and in the south, where Shalit is believed to be held.

But Israel has so far held back on a ground invasion, and has allowed food, medicine, fuel and other supplies into Gaza.

Army chief Dan Halutz said Israel is prepared to take military action to free Shalit.

"We will do everything necessary and possible to bring him back home," Halutz told reporters after meeting with Shalit's parents.

Those efforts might include releasing prisoners, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, which reported yesterday that the government was prepared to do so in exchange for the release of Shalit.

Israel has released prisoners in the past in exchange for the remains of its soldiers, but Olmert has not wanted to take steps that could encourage militants to carry out further abductions.

Public opinion polls suggest that Israelis want the government to negotiate for Shalit's release.

According to a poll published by the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot, 53 percent of those surveyed said Israel should negotiate for the soldier's release; 43 percent favored military action.

If it were certain that Shalit would be executed unless prisoners were freed, 58 percent supported such a release.

Amid the crisis over the kidnapped soldier, Palestinians and Israelis have engaged in brinkmanship that has increased internal tensions on both sides and could lead to a new cycle of violence. The situation is a test of the leadership of Haniyeh and Olmert.

The Hamas-led government, which has been crippled by economic sanctions, risks physical destruction if Israel responds with military assaults, assassinations and mass arrests, and it could lose the support of Palestinians if it releases Shalit unconditionally.

Olmert, meanwhile, is seeking to demonstrate his ability to respond as effectively in a crisis as did former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

If Olmert becomes bogged down in a long military campaign in Gaza, the Israeli public might be less likely to support his efforts to close Jewish settlements in the West Bank - a plan that could fall victim to events in Gaza.

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