A Hamas official close to the group's exiled leader said Tuesday that the Palestinians should try to capture more Israel Defense Forces soldiers, criticizing Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas for helping Israel search for a soldier seized by militants.
Further complicating matters as IDF troops and armor massed on the Gaza border, another Hamas official from the exiled leadership said the soldier was considered a "prisoner of war" and it would be hard for Israel to win his release without making concessions.
Corporal Gilad Shalit, 19, was seized Sunday by militants who infiltrated Israel's border by a tunnel. The militants' demanded the release of detained Palestinian women and children in return for information about Shalit.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has rejected the demands and ordered the military to prepare for combat.
"I believe the resistance (fighters) should not be content with taking one Israeli soldier as a prisoner," Osama Hamdan, who is Hamas' representative in Lebanon and is close to Hamas' political bureau chief Khaled Meshal, told Al-Manar television in Beirut.
"They should develop this kind of operation and seek to capture more soldiers, and perhaps officers, so that the occupation realizes that our prisoners will not die and rot in jail," he said.
Hamdan spoke as if Olmert's rejection, delivered Monday night, would not be Israel's final word.
"No one should think that the issue could be solved in 48 hours or 72 hours. The matter needs time," he told Al-Manar, the station of Lebanon's militant Hezbollah group.
He cited the example of Hezbollah, whereby the group on several occasions traded Israelis or their bodies for Lebanese prisoners held by Israel after lengthy negotiations through third-parties.
Hamas criticized Abbas, who ordered his security agencies to search for the soldier as he struggles to contain the snowballing crisis that threatens Gaza with invasion.
"There is information about a team that is helping Israel in the search for the soldier, to provide information probably for an Israeli military operation," said Hamdan. "He who is trying to uncover the fate of the Israeli soldier is undermining the chances of the resistance to gain the release of prisoners."
Hamas' military wing was one of three groups that claimed responsibility for the operation without the knowledge of the Hamas political leadership. Aides close to Abbas have alleged that the Damascus-based Meshal ordered the attack without consulting the Hamas-led government in the Palestinian territories - suggesting divisions in the group.
Meshal aides deny he ordered the attack, saying the military wing operates separately from the political leadership.
Meshal's deputy, Moussa Abu Marzouk, said it was up to the fighters holding the soldier to call for negotiations or set conditions.
"This soldier is a prisoner of war. ... It will be difficult for Israel to escape paying a price for capturing this soldier," he told The Associated Press in Damascus.
Abu Marzouk and Hamdan both rejected claims of a serious rift within Hamas. Hamdan acknowledged "an internal debate" within the movement, adding "We know where we are heading." In a telephone interview with the AP Monday night, Hamdan accused Abbas' Fatah party of trying "to implicate him (Meshal) in this to provide a pretext for the Israelis to hit him."
Abbas warned Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh that Israel will strike out at him if harm comes to the IDF soldier kidnapped by militants, the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper reported Tuesday.
During a particularly tense and hasty meeting held Monday night in Gaza, Abbas told Haniyeh that Israel would also strike out at his fellow Hamas members Palestinian Foreign Minister Mahmoud a-Zahar and Interior Minister Said Sayam if anything happens to Shalit.
Abbas reportedly hurled accusations at Hamas during the 15-minute meeting which otherwise produced no results.
Meanwhile, the head of Hamas' political bureau, Khaled Meshal, appears to be unwilling to release Shalit, mediators involved in efforts to secure the soldier's release told Haaretz on Monday night.
Nevertheless, talks with the Hamas leadership both inside and outside the territories were continuing, the mediators said, adding that they were optimistic Meshal would change his position.
Meshal's "not positive" attitude is not totally negative, the mediators said. "Meshal does not want a deterioration in the Gaza Strip either," a mediator said.
Israeli officials also said Monday night that efforts to secure Shalit's release are running into difficulties, primarily due to Meshal's position on the matter.
Defense Minister Amir Peretz spoke on the phone Monday night with Egyptian intelligence chief General Omar Suleiman, and asked him to intervene in the talks. Defense establishment officials, however, are having a hard time assessing the extent of Egypt's commitment to securing a deal, and whether the Egyptian and French mediation is enough to ensure success in the negotiations.
A number of teams, including negotiators from Egypt and France, are mediating between the kidnappers and the Israeli government. Jordanian diplomats spoke Monday night with Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, and asked him to work toward securing the soldier's release.
The teams have stressed that the Hamas government's position is very positive, and that Haniyeh and his ministers want Shalit released.
The Egyptian team met Monday in Gaza with Abbas and briefed him on their activities thus far. Earlier, the team met with a-Zahar, whose brother, Yussef, is considered one of the leaders of Hamas' military wing.
Palestinian sources said that the current working assumption - according to information that has reached the PA - is that Shalit is being held in the area of Khan Yunis.
Egypt and Saudi Arabia now are pressing Hamas and Islamic Jihad's leadership, via Syria, to bring about Shalit's release, but have yet to receive practical responses. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak may initiate a meeting in Cairo with these organizations' leaders within a day or two in further efforts to secure the soldier's release.
U.S. calls for soldier's releaseU.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke during the weekend with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and with Abbas, while American diplomats conferred with Egyptian, Israeli and Palestinian officials.
"There are a lot of different parties working to resolve the issue," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. "But the bottom line is we call upon this individual to be released immediately."
"What we would urge is that all sides exercise restraint and avoid steps which further escalate the situation," the State Department spokesman said. "As we have said all along, it is the responsibility of the Palestinian Authority government to stop all acts of violence."
"I think President Abbas wants to see this individual released, and certainly the secretary reinforced that idea as well," McCormack said.
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