Israel rejects Palestinian demands as mediation efforts faltering

news3_1_7.jpgGAZA CITY (AFP) — Efforts to free an Israeli soldier whose abduction has triggered a major Middle East crisis have hit an impasse, Palestinian officials warned Saturday after Israel rejected new demands.

Israel kept up the pressure on the Palestinians with a fourth straight night of air strikes on targets in the Gaza Strip and insisted it would not negotiate with the captors of 19-year-old corporal Gilad Shalit.

Israel, which has warned of “extreme measures” to secure the release of the serviceman, rejected new demands issued by the three Palestinian groups holding Shalit.

The White House also urged the release of the soldier, saying his freedom was a “key” first step to ending the crisis. The Popular Resistance Committees, the armed wing of the governing Islamist movement Hamas and the previously unknown Army of Islam said they were seeking the release of “1,000 Palestinian, Arab, Muslim and other prisoners”.

The statement did not explicitly say the releases were conditions for securing the release of Shalit, who a Palestinian official said was suffering three bullet wounds but had received medical treatment.

It said all detained Palestinian leaders as well as elderly and sick detainees should be freed, and reiterated an earlier demand for the release of women and juvenile prisoners.

The statement also urged Israel to end its military reprisals in the Palestinian territories, which have raised international fears of an escalation in the Middle East conflict that could spread through the region.

But Israel rejected the demands.

“Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been clear on this point. There will be no negotiations with the kidnappers. If Gilad Shalit is not freed, Israel will do what it necessary,” said foreign ministry spokesman Mark Regev.

Palestinian officials said that the negotiations had reached an impasse.

“The coming hours will be sensitive and dangerous. Efforts continue but until now no satisfactory solution has been reached,” Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said in a statement.

“The situation is dangerous and we can say that things are stalled. Israel does not want to free any prisoner, which is the main claim of the groups holding the soldier,” an official from Abbas’ office said.

A senior Palestinian official said the life of Hamas Prime Minister Ismael Haniyeh — whose government has already faced Israel’s wrath with the detention of eight ministers — could be at risk if Shalit is not returned home alive.

And Hamas’ leader in Lebanon, Osama Hamdan, told a Norwegian newspaper that the current Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip would not deter the kidnappers.

“Kidnappings will increase as long as Palestinians are not freed, whatever the outcome of the Israeli invasion in the Gaza Strip,” he said.

In the early hours of Saturday, fresh air strikes targeted Hamas and Fateh training camps and potential escape routes in a bid to prevent fighters moving the soldier from southern Gaza where he is currently believed to be held.

Gunboats and ground forces also fired a barrage of around 350 artillery rounds on Gaza, although Israel has held off from a threatened ground offensive from the north to allow for the continuation of diplomatic efforts.

About 5,000 troops and columns of Israeli tanks are poised on the Gaza border in the largest Israeli military operation since it pulled out of the tiny coastal territory last September, ending a 38-year-occupation.

Egypt, which is trying to broker a way out of the crisis, said Friday that Hamas had agreed to secure his release but that Israel had not agreed to the conditions, which it did not specify.

Israeli public radio quoted a Palestinian official as saying a doctor who had visited Shalit described the conscript’s condition as “good” and that he had been lightly wounded in the abdomen and shoulder.

As the international community appealed to both sides to show restraint, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was preparing to visit Moscow on Monday for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The UN Security Council also debated the crisis Friday after Arab nations called for the UN to adopt of a resolution condemning the Israeli intervention.

But the United States, Israel’s closest ally, pointed the finger of blame at Syria, where several top Hamas fighters are based “We would not be where we are right now if it were not for Syria’s support and harbouring of terrorists,” US Ambassador John Bolton said.

Bolton pressed Syrian President Bashar Assad to turn over for prosecution Khaled Mishaal, Hamas’ exiled political leader who lives in Damascus and who famously escaped a Mossad attempt on his life in 1997.

“In addition, we call upon Syria to stop financing the terrorists and stop cooperating with other states, such as Iran, which finance terrorists,” Bolton said.

Hamas, blacklisted as a terror group by Israel and the West, has vowed that the “barbaric aggression” by Israel would not topple its administration, which took office in March after shock election win.

“We are working to end this crisis but the aggression must stop and the siege has to be lifted,” Haniyeh said Friday.

Israel had further ratcheted up the pressure on the Palestinian leadership Friday by revoking the Jerusalem residency rights of a Hamas minister and three MPs, meaning their likely expulsion from the occupied east of the Holy City.

Israeli troops rounded up scores of Hamas members in a massive West Bank sweep the day before, including eight ministers — a third of the Palestinian Cabinet — and 24 MPs.

Many parts of Gaza, already facing a dire humanitarian crisis because of a cut in Western aid since Hamas took office, are without electricity and water because of the Israeli strikes.

The United Nations warned that the Gaza Strip could soon face major shortages despite the Israeli army’s insistence that the territory had “ample” supplies of food and fuel.

Israel’s offensive — and a perceived lack of action by world leaders — has drawn fierce criticism in the Arab world.

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