Israel Rejects Demands of Soldier's Captor

Talks to free a captured Israeli soldier in the Gaza Strip enter a deadlock as Israel rejects demands made by Palestinian militants. The captors have asked for 1,000 prisoners to be released and an end to aggression in the West Bank and Gaza.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Debbie Elliott.

The tense situation in the Gaza Strip continues today. Talks to free a captured Israeli soldier seem to be deadlocked, and Palestinian militants have made new demands, which Israel rejected.

NPR's Eric Westervelt is in Gaza and joins us now.

Hello, Eric.

ERIC WESTERVELT reporting:

Good evening.

ELLIOTT: What is the latest on the diplomatic front there?

WESTERVELT: Well, the three Hamas-linked militant groups that are holding this 19-year-old Israeli corporal, Gilad Shalit, demanded today that Israel release 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. That, Debbie, is on top of the previous demand that Israel release several hundred women and teenagers in Israeli jails, and Israeli officials quickly reiterated that there will be no prisoner swap, no deals and no negotiations.

It also appears that efforts by Egypt and the Palestinian Authority leader, Mahmoud Abbas, to work out some kind of diplomatic solution to the crisis may have reached an impasse. Abbas, actually late today, said those efforts were still ongoing. And he voiced some confidence, saying, We will surely reach some agreement. It is not a dead end.

But others in Abbas's office privately were more skeptical. One aide said in a statement that they were having trouble making any headway, quote, due to the absence of an address on the Hamas side capable of making any decisions.

ELLIOTT: Does that mean that there are internal divisions within Hamas?

WESTERVELT: Yeah, you've got growing divisions within Hamas and there's been intense, sometimes violent power struggles between Hamas and Fatah, which is Abbas's party, since Hamas won the election in January. Abbas advisors said today that the leadership of Hamas continues to sort of pass the buck.

The exiled leaders, many of them living in Syria, are deferring to the military wing of Hamas, Abbas said. And the military wing then turns around and says, No, we actually respond to what the exiled leadership says. And the Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniya, here in Gaza, doesn't appear to have any say in what is going on, according to Abbas officials we spoke with.

So those divisions between outside and inside in Hamas are starting to seriously affect any effort to solve this crisis diplomatically.

ELLIOTT: What will it mean, Eric, if indeed diplomatic efforts fail? What happens if the Israeli military goes in?

WESTERVELT: There's a real possibility of that. Israel moved its forces into Gaza early Wednesday and sort of set up positions at an airport in the south outside of Rafah. There was some exchange of gunfire today near there as bulldozers and tanks began pushing into some farmland in that area. There were no reported casualties.

But overall these armored units haven't moved much from those positions since they came in on Wednesday. The army has kept up a pretty steady artillery barrage into open areas in the north. The air force has struck targets throughout Gaza, including some roads, bridges, suspected training camps, and Gaza's lone power plant.

People in the north are bracing for a possibility of armored troops entering the area. Israel has dropped leaflets warning people to stay indoors and stay out of the way.

And the UN refugee agency here has made contingency plans to temporarily house any civilians displaced by the fighting in local schools.

ELLIOTT: You know, it's been less than a year since Israel pulled out of the Gaza Strip. Is this at all an indication that that pullout is not working?

WESTERVELT: Well, critics in Israel of the Gaza pullout have said for months that it was a mistake to pull out, that the idea was that pulling the settlers and soldiers out of Gaza after nearly 40 of occupation would bring about enhanced security.

In fact, it has not. There's been daily rocket fire from Gaza into towns like Nativa Sirah(ph) and Stirot(ph). They caused few injuries or deaths, but they have traumatized many of the people in these towns who say their lives are completely disrupted. And now Israeli tanks have moved into southern Gaza and they're poised on the border of northern Gaza. And so yes, less than a year after the pullout from Gaza, it appears possible that Israel could become entangled even more deeply in a military operation in Gaza.

ELLIOTT: NPR's Eric Westervelt in Gaza.

Thanks so much.

WESTERVELT: You're welcome.

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