Israel warns 'sky will fall on Hamas'

GAZA - Israel warned Hamas that the "sky will fall on them" after a deadline set by Gaza militants for the Jewish state to free prisoners in exchange for a captured soldier expired.

Three Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip, including Hamas' armed wing, had given Israel until 3pm yesterday NZT, saying it had to respond by then if it valued the life of Corporal Gilad Shalit, 19.

Israel ruled out negotiating with the militants after the deadline passed, and the Maariv newspaper reported that the Government gave the Army the green light to launch a deeper incursion into northern Gaza.

The smallest of the three militant groups, the Islamic Army, said there would be no further information on Shalit, who was seized in a cross-border raid on June 25.

"Whether he will be killed or not killed, we will not disclose any information about the fate of the soldier. Discussion is closed," said spokesman Abu al-Muthana. "We do not kill captives. Our Islam requires that we treat captives well and fairly." He did not to say whether Shalit was alive or dead.

Israel has massed troops and armour for a possible expansion of the ground operation. Palestinian security sources said the number of armoured vehicles on the northern edge of the strip had increased.

An Israeli air strike in northern Gaza killed one militant and wounded two. Israel said they were planting bombs. In Gaza City, Israel fired a missile at the Islamic University, a Hamas stronghold. The Army said it had attacked a building used by Hamas to plan attacks.

Israel has hinted it could assassinate Hamas leaders if Shalit is not freed. Hamas sources said Western diplomats had told the group that Israel had prepared a 13-man hit list headed by exiled leader Khaled Meshaal and including Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and Foreign Minister Mahmoud al-Zahar.

"Hamas well understands the uncompromising message of the Israeli Government, that the sky will fall on them if they harm Gilad Shalit," Interior Minister Roni Bar-On told Israel Radio. "We will respond in a way the Palestinians haven't yet seen if, heaven forbid, they carry out their threat."

Before the deadline passed, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had already decided to continue the offensive, Israel Radio said. Israel resumed artillery fire against northern Gaza after militants fired homemade rockets at the Jewish state.

The groups holding Shalit have demanded Israel free 1000 prisoners. Unless the demands were met, the factions said, "the enemy will bear full responsibility for future consequences".

Israeli security sources said a commando raid to try to rescue Shalit remained an option but would be risky in Gaza's maze of alleyways. The last Israeli soldier abducted by Palestinians was killed in a failed rescue bid in 1994.

- REUTERS

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