Israel set for military raid over kidnapped soldier

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The Independent Online

Israel began assembling troops, tanks and armoured vehicles on the Gaza border yesterday amid frantic diplomatic and political efforts to secure the safe release of the 19-year-old corporal seized by Palestinian militants.

The heavy build-up came as the three groups claiming responsibility for Sunday's raid on an Israeli army post demanded the release from Israeli gaols of all Palestinian women and prisoners under 18 in return for the release of the soldier captured in the attack.

Appearing to rule out a prisoner exchange deal with Hamas, the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, declared: "This is not a matter of negotiations, this is not a matter of bargaining."

The contingency plans for what Mr Olmert defined as a "broad and ongoing military operation" inside Gaza - the first since Israel withdrew settlers from the strip in August - appeared to be on hold at least as long as there was a chance of diplomats and Palestinian officials persuading the captors to hand over Corporal Gilad Shalit unharmed.

Israel has launched a diplomatic initiative to persuade the international community that the crisis, and the issue of Cpl Shalit's release, was a "make-or-break" test of the credibility of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, and his eligibility as a negotiating "partner" for Israel.

Despite public exhortations by the Hamas-led Palestinian government on the militants to ensure Cpl Shalit was unharmed, and efforts by Mr Abbas to secure his release, Mr Olmert said: "It should be clear that we see the Palestinian Authority on all its levels, from the chairman on downward, as the responsible element for this operation and all that happens from it."

While insisting that Israel wanted to see diplomatic efforts - involving senior Egyptian and Jordanian officials among others - to secure Cpl Shalit's release take their course, Israel's ambassador to the UN, Dan Gillerman, warned: "Time is limited," and added: "For months the international community had been telling Israel that if it bolstered Mr Abbas's authority he would then prevail over Hamas. He has to prove he is the man in charge ... He has talked the talk. Now he has to walk the walk," said Mr Gillerman. He said if Mr Abbas succeeded it could help Israel to develop Mr Olmert's planned meeting with him into negotiations, but "if he fails to deliver then we do not have a partner".

Walid Awad, a spokesman for Mr Abbas's office, said the President was doing everything to secure Cpl Shalit's release but warned that there was heavy pressure from families of 10,000 prisoners held in Israel to free some of them in return. He urged Israel not to resort to an armed incursion into Gaza and "to allow space and time for discussions to proceed. If Israel wants to get the soldier out alive then force should not be a choice for anybody."

Mr Awad claimed Mr Haniyeh, the Hamas Palestinian Prime Minister, had been as "surprised as the President" at the soldier's seizure in an operation sanctioned "from outside" and that there were splits between the faction inside Gaza and the Damascus-based political leadership under Khaled Mashaal.

The demand for prisoner releases issued late yesterday afternoon by the three militant groups, Hamas's military wing, and two offshoots of the Palestinian Resistance Committees, the Salahadin brigades and the Islam Army, was the first public acknowledgement by the militants they were holding the corporal.

A Hamas member of the Palestinian parliament said Hamas's part in the operation was ordered by the military and political leadership outside the cabinet - including Mr Mashaal. But he added that Hamas had had "no choice" after Israeli attacks that killed civilians and that "a price" should be paid for Cpl Shalit's release.

At the mourning tent for one of the Palestinian gunmen killed in the operation, Mohammed Asmi Farwana, 22, the dead man's brother, Abu al-Majd, 29, said he had known nothing of his brother's involvement.He said: "It was a good operation. We want the soldier to go back to his family but in return for something. We want to see the prisoners released."

'Try to survive... we love you'

* Gilad Shalit, the "quiet young man who has dual French-Israeli citizenship, excelled in physics at school and chose to do his military service in a combat unit. Noam Shalit, his French-born father yesterday issued a call on Army Radio to his kidnappers, asking that they " remember that he's a human being."

He added: "We want to hear a sign of life. We believe that those who are holding him also have families and children, and that they know what we are feeling."

Addressing his son directly in the same broadcast, he added: "Try to survive the difficult moments. We love you, and are waiting for you to come back home."