Israel refuses to negotiate over captured soldier

By Donald Macintyre

JERUSALEM - The Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, has dismissed international criticisms of the military incursions into Gaza and vowed that there would be no negotiations with the "bloody organisation" Hamas on prisoner exchanges.

Mr Olmert's uncompromising public line came as Khaled Meshaal, the exiled head of Hamas's political bureau, said in Damascus that Gilad Shalit, the 19-year-old army corporal seized by 16 days ago, would not be freed without the release of Palestinian prisoners.

At least four Palestinians, including at least three presumed militants, were killed in three airstrikes yesterday.

Mr Olmert was especially scathing about an EU warning against "disproportionate" Israeli military action in Gaza, saying that militants had fired 300 Qassam rockets at Israel last month.

Mr Olmert declared: "Can one measure the anxiety, the fear, the shocks, the lack of security ... When was the last time that the European Union condemned this shooting and suggested effective measures to stop it?"

On speculation that an unstated objective of the current military campaign in Gaza was to dislodge the elected Hamas Palestinian government, he added: "We have no particular desire to topple the Hamas government as a policy.

We have a desire to stop terrorists from inflicting terror on the Israeli people."

The Palestinian people had to decide whether to be ruled by such a government or "by a civilised government prepared to make compromises based on reasonable agreements that can lead to peace between us and them. That is the choice."

Mr Olmert's assertion that it would be a "major mistake" to negotiate prisoner releases with Hamas was countered by Mr Meshaal's declaration: "The solution is simple: a [prisoner] exchange. But Israel refuses that", and appeared to point to an unbridgeable gap between the two sides.

But Mr Olmert's chosen formulation did not appear to rule out the possibility of negotiations with an intermediary such as the Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, under which prisoners might be released at some future date if Corporal Shalit was first released and the Qassam rocket attacks on Israel halted.

Although the Interior Minister, Avi Dichter, has reportedly been rebuked for suggesting as much on Friday, Israel has yet to deny the assertion by Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, last week that Mr Olmert had indicated to Mr Mubarak he was prepared to make such a deal.

Mr Mubarak would in effect be the guarantor to Hamas that Israel would reciprocate some time after the release of Corporal Shalit.

Some Israeli officials pointed to the reference in Sunday's cabinet communique to seeking "new rules of conduct vis-a-vis the Palestinian Authority and the Hamas government" and implied a possible outcome might be a comprehensive ceasefire in which Corporal Shalit would be released, the Qassam attacks halted, an Israel pull-back from Gaza and some prisoners freed at a later date.

Mr Meshaal yesterday said that Corporal Shalit was a "prisoner of war" and that he should be treated according to international conventions governing PoW.

Hamas is reportedly seeking immediate negotiations on the prisoners to be freed rather than accept a guarantee from Mr Mubarak.

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