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A large military force was poised late last night to enter the Gaza Strip for a limited ground incursion in an attempt to put pressure on Hamas to release the abducted Israeli soldier, Corporal Gilad Shalit. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert approved the Israel Defense Forces operation after consulting with the defense establishment earlier in the evening. Meanwhile fear mounted over the fate of another Israeli, the youth Eliyahu Asheri from the settlement of Itamar, who has been missing since Sunday evening. IDF sources thought he might have been kidnapped and murdered in the Ramallah area.

Israel radio reported late last night that Israeli planes had attacked a bridge in the northern Gaza Strip. Israeli tanks were also on the move, the report said.

Informed Israeli officials told Haaretz yesterday that, so far, the diplomatic contacts with the Palestinians- being conducted mainly by Egyptian and French intermediaries- over freeing Shalit, had not borne fruit. The IDF operation is designed to gain "bargaining chips" by taking control of open areas, such as the area near Rafah and later the northern Gaza Strip. Israel hopes that this will eventually lead to a diplomatic agreement that will include freeing the kidnapped soldier in return for stopping the fire. Olmert has already rejected the idea of freeing Palestinian prisoners.

Another option discussed yesterday was stopping the electricity supply to the central and southern Strip where intelligence sources believe the soldier is being held. The idea was dismissed for fear it would cause deaths in hospitals, but short electricity breaks might still be introduced.

Palestinians yesterday set up roadblocks and laid mines and explosive devices in both the northern and southern sections of the Strip to prevent an Israeli advance. The various armed groups announced they would cooperate and join forces against Israeli troops.

Civilians in the Strip were busy hoarding food yesterday and long lines formed at gas stations. The streets of Gaza City were deserted last night. An activist from Hamas' armed wing was killed yesterday in an explosion in Gaza City. No one took responsibility for the explosion of the vehicle in which he was traveling and Israeli sources said they believed it was a "work accident."

The missing youth, Eliyahu Asheri, 18, was last seen at nine on Sunday night, hitch-hiking at the French Hill junction. He was on his way to the pre-military yeshiva program where he was studying at the Neveh Tsuf settlement near Ramallah. His family reported him missing only yesterday morning.

A spokesman for the Popular Resistance Committees in Gaza yesterday reiterated that they had kidnapped a settler. He said they had documents to prove this but that "these would not be shown for free- everything has a price." Military sources said they feared the abduction had failed and the youth had been killed.

Olmert yesterday met with Defense Minister Amir Peretz and heads of the defense establishment for the third time since Sunday's terrorist attack. The army's top brass came with new ideas for a ground offensive after Olmert rejected previous plans as inadequate.

"Our aim is not to mete out punishment but rather to apply pressure so that the abducted soldier will be freed. We want to create a new equation freeing the abducted soldier in return for lessening the pressure on the Palestinians," he said.

Speaking in the Knesset plenum, Olmert also said: "Our aim ... is not to punish the civilian Palestinian population ... but rather to bring Gilad home."

The idea is to carry out a gradually stepped-up campaign, sources said, so as to make the diplomatic pressure on Hamas more effective. The intelligence reports on the whereabouts of the missing soldier have also improved over the past three days. Sources said that Israel's decision to delay the attack and wait for the diplomatic contacts to yield results had led to the garnering of greater diplomatic support abroad.