A Palestinian militant leader today said a captured Israeli soldier was being held in a “secure place,” and he claimed that his group also seized a Jewish settler in the West Bank.
Meanwhile, the rival Hamas and Fatah movements agreed on a plan implicitly recognising Israel, officials said, after weeks of acrimonious negotiations aiming to lift crippling international aid sanctions.
The new claims about captive Israelis came from the Popular Resistance Committees, a violent group with close ties to the Hamas-led Palestinian government.
The PRC was one of three groups that took part in Sunday’s cross-border infiltration near Gaza in which militants killed two Israeli soldiers and abducted Cp. Gilad Shalit.
“The soldier is in a secure place that the Zionists cannot reach,” PRC spokesman Mohammed Abdel Al said. It was the first acknowledgement by militants that Shalit was still alive.
The kidnappers have not said where the 19-year-old soldier is being held or released any photos of him. Israeli officials believe Shalit sustained light wounds to his stomach and is being held in southern Gaza.
Abdel Al also said his group had taken a Jewish settler in the West Bank hostage. Israel Radio reported the settler had been hitchhiking last night and failed to return home.
“We’re looking into reports of a missing person,” police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.
Abdel Al said the release of more information would depend on Israel.
“The Zionists are looking for any information. We remind them there is nothing for free,” he said in Gaza Strip.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has rejected a demand to release Palestinian prisoners in return for information about Shalit. Instead, he approved plans for a large military push into Gaza and threatened to hit Islamic militants and their leaders.
About 3,000 troops, along with tanks and armoured vehicles, massed along Israel’s border with Gaza. Commanders said they were prepared and awaiting orders to move in.
“We will not hold back on our efforts, and to our great sorrow, part of this price will be paid by the residents of the Gaza Strip,” Haim Ramon, a senior Israeli Cabinet Minister, told Army Radio.
“This strike will come and it will be very painful. In order to stop this, I call on authorities in the Palestinian Authority to do all they can to bring Gilad home.”
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged Israel to “give diplomacy a chance.”
“There really needs to be an effort now to try and calm the situation,” Rice said en route to Pakistan.
Although Israel frequently carries out air raids in Gaza, ground troops have entered the area only three times – all briefly – since Israel withdrew from the area in September.
Israel clamped a tight closure on Gaza that prevented merchants from leaving the area and fishermen from sailing off the Mediterranean coast, the army said. It closed all crossings into Gaza.
Hundreds of Palestinians were stranded on the Egyptian side of the border at the Palestinian-controlled Rafah crossing, said the director of security at the Palestinian crossings, Salim Abu Safiah.
Anticipating an invasion, Palestinian militants piled up sand on roads near the border and in Gaza City. “We are ready to confront any stupid act that the Zionists might commit,” said Abu Obeida, spokesman for Hamas’ military wing.
The group also claimed that militants from various factions had taken up positions throughout northern Gaza.
The fate of Shalit has captured the attention of Israel, dominating newscasts and front pages of newspapers.
In an interview, Shalit’s father, Noam, appealed to the captors to protect his son and send assurances that he is safe. “We’d like to get a life sign from Gilad, to hear his voice and to see his face and to see he is well,” he said.
The moderate Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, met with leaders of the Hamas-led government last night and urged them to secure Shalit’s release. Abbas also has been working closely with Egyptian mediators, who hold influence over Hamas.
Egyptian officials said the government asked Hamas to release the soldier and has deployed 2,500 extra troops along the border with Gaza to prevent an influx of Palestinians if Israel invades. Egypt also imposed a nighttime curfew on residents along the border.
Intelligence chief Omar Suleiman has urged Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, who is in Syria, to push for Shalit’s release, the officials said.
Participants said yesterday’s Palestinian meeting was tense and that Abbas told the Hamas leaders they would be responsible for any Israeli reprisals. Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said he did not have any information about the soldier, the participants said.
The abduction has exposed divisions within Hamas, which maintains separate political and military wings. While the military wing claimed responsibility for Sunday’s attack, local political leaders have said Shalit should be freed.
Ghazi Hamad, a government spokesman, said he feels sorry for the soldier and wants him protected. “We ... don’t want to reach a situation of bloodshed, here or there,” he told Army Radio in Hebrew.
Mohammad Nazal, a Damascus-based member of the Hamas politburo, said the militant group won’t agree to release the Israeli soldier “without a deal.”
“No release without something in return,” he said. “This is the popular demand and we cannot let down our people.”
On the political front, Abbas has been trying to coax his Hamas rivals into endorsing the document that calls for a Palestinian state alongside Israel, in effect recognising the Jewish state. He has endorsed the plan as a way to end sanctions against the Hamas-led Palestinian government and pave the way to reopening peace talks with Israel.
“We have an agreement over the document,” said Ibrahim Abu Najah, co-ordinator of the “national dialogue” over the proposal. Fatah and Hamas officials called the deal a breakthrough.
The plan also calls on militants to limit attacks to areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast War and calls for formation of a coalition Palestinian government.
The United States, Israel and European Union list Hamas as a terrorist group because it rejects the existence of Israel and has sent dozens of suicide bombers into the Jewish state, killing hundreds.
The West demands that Hamas recognise Israel, renounce violence and accept previous peace accords, but Hamas refuses. As a result, the West has cut off much-needed aid.
The militants holding Shalit issued their first demands yesterday. The groups, which included Hamas’ military wing and two offshoots of the PRC, said Israel should release all jailed Palestinian women and children under 18 in return for information about Shalit. Officials estimate there are 500 such prisoners.
The issue of the estimated 8,000 prisoners held by Israel is extremely sensitive in Palestinian society. Ordinary Palestinians have expressed overwhelming support for the kidnappers, saying the soldier should not be freed without the prisoners’ release.