New Demands for Israeli Soldier's Release
SCOTT SIMON, host:
Israeli Army Corporal Gilad Shalit is alive and in stable condition, this according to a Palestinian official speaking today. The 19-year-old tank gunner has been held hostage by Palestinian militants since a cross-border raid last weekend. The militants issued new demands today for his release, but Israel rejected the demands and said there will be no deals.
From Gaza, NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.
ERIC WESTERVELT reporting:
Today the three militant groups holding Israeli corporal Gilad Shalit said they want Israel to free 1,000 prisoners and, quote, end all aggression in the West Bank and Gaza. They also reiterated demands Israel release all women and teenagers in Israeli jails.
Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Mark Regev has told NPR there will be no deals. Corporal Shalit should be released unconditionally.
The new demands seem to dim the prospects of current efforts by Egyptian and Palestinian diplomats to secure the soldier's safe release.
Mr. KAIS ABU LAYLA (Palestinian Advisor): I'll give it about 50 percent.
WESTERVELT: That's Kais Abu Layla, who's advising Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas as he tries to pressure members in his rival Hamas to cut a deal. Under the terms, the soldier would be freed in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal and other security pledges.
Mr. ABU LAYLA: The Israelis will stop their aggression and will give a guarantee that assassinations and bombings against the Gaza Strip will stop.
WESTERVELT: A Palestinian source involved in the talks with Hamas says Abbas is also trying to get a pledge from militants to end the daily rocket fire at Israel and from Israel a pledge to put the issue of Palestinian prisoners at the top of the agenda in any future talks.
Israel publicly says there will be no negotiations. Israel's Mark Regev does say that if Abbas is able to bring about the soldier's release, quote, it will lead to an immediate de-escalation and would be an important confidence-building measure for any future talks.
But it's not clear Abbas has any real sway over Hamas or the Hamas-linked militant groups holding the soldier. Indeed Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh gave a defiant speech at Friday prayers in Gaza City. He told worshippers that dozen of Hamas cabinet ministers and legislators were arrested and government offices bombed by Israel, in what he called a conspiracy to topple the democratically elected Hamas government.
Outside the mosque, angry women, such as Nasua Alcafonga(ph) vowed to stand strong.
Ms. NASUA ALCAFONGA (Protestor) (Through Translator): They can cut the electricity, the water. They will not defeat us. We and our kids are ready to sacrifice for our homeland.
WESTERVELT: Israeli jets have kept up air strikes as well as artillery fire from land and sea overnight and today, hitting open areas as well as access roads and militant training camps. Casualties have been low so far, with two militants killed.
The psychological war continues as well, with the air force keeping up its middle of the night flyovers and earth-shaking sonic booms.
(Soundbite of aircraft)
WESTERVELT: An air strike Wednesday on Gaza's lone power plant knocked out electricity and damaged water systems for almost half the population in Gaza. The remaining power Gaza gets from Israeli power plants is now being rationed and there are rolling blackouts across Gaza. All of Gaza's border crossings remain closed, so no supplies are coming in.
Christer Nordahl with the U.N. Refugee Agency here fears a looming health crisis.
Mr. CHRISTER NORDAHL (U.N. Refugee Agency): Fuel is required to run the water pumps if there is no electricity, and fuel is not coming in. We have no water, and also considering the climate we have, it will be a life-threatening situation rather quickly.
WESTERVELT: The Israeli army says there is still ample fuel in the Gaza Strip, and a spokesman says they may reopen the main freight crossing soon to allow humanitarian goods and fuel to enter.
Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Gaza.