Israel Masses Troops for 'Ongoing' Operation

JERUSALEM -- Israel massed troops Monday along the Gaza Strip border in preparation for what Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said would be a "broad and ongoing" operation against Palestinian militants following the abduction of an Israeli soldier.

Olmert issued the threat as Israeli and Palestinian officials furiously worked diplomatic channels to gain the release of Corporal Gilad Shalit, a dual French-Israeli citizen who was seized in a cross-border raid Sunday.

Speaking to a tourism conference in Jerusalem, Olmert said Israel's patience was wearing thin and that he held the entire Palestinian leadership responsible for Shalit's safety.

"I gave the orders to our military commanders to prepare the army for a broad and ongoing military operation to strike the terrorist leaders and all those involved," he said. "It should be clear. There will be immunity for no one."

But Israel was not expected to launch a large operation as long as there was a chance of bringing the soldier home, and Olmert's language, referring to preparations, reflected that.

Olmert also told a closed parliamentary meeting that he would not negotiate with the captors.

Militants affiliated with the ruling Hamas party and tiny allied factions abducted Shalit early Sunday after tunneling into Israel and attacking a military post. Two other soldiers were killed, and three militants died in a shootout.

The attack was the first successful infiltration by Palestinian militants since Israel withdrew from Gaza last September, and it threatened to plunge the region into a flare-up of violence. While Israel has carried out numerous airstrikes against Gaza militants since the withdrawal, it has sent in ground troops just three times, all for brief operations.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was working intensely with Egyptian mediators, Arab and Western leaders to locate the soldier, officials said, while a spokesman for the rival Hamas-led Palestinian government said he had information Shalit was alive and urged his captors to keep him safe.

It was not clear who was holding Shalit, where he was being held or what his captors wanted. In the past, seized soldiers have been used as bargaining chips for the release of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.

Despite Abbas' efforts to pressure Hamas into moderation, Olmert said he blamed the entire Palestinian leadership, including the president, for the spiraling violence.

"It should be clear that we see the Palestinian Authority on all its levels, from the chairman on downward, as the responsible element for this operation and all that happens from it," Olmert said, referring to Abbas.

Earlier Monday, Israel massed special units, tanks and infantry troops along the border with Gaza.

Palestinian lawmaker Saeb Erekat, an Abbas aide, called for restraint "at a time when President Abbas is exerting maximum efforts in order to acquire the release of the soldier, alive and unharmed."

The tensions have raised the possibility that Israel could renew its policy of assassinating Hamas political leaders, which it halted in February 2005.

Hamas lawmaker Mushir al-Masri warned Israel against any "stupid acts."

"This will blow up the area again," he said. "We also warn the Zionists against assassinating any leader because we believe the armed wings of the resistance groups will not remain silent."

The kidnapping delivered a blow to Abbas' efforts to coax Hamas into accepting a plan that implicitly recognizes Israel. Abbas, elected separately last year, has endorsed the plan in the hope of lifting crippling economic sanctions against Hamas and opening the way for new peace talks.

It also has exposed divisions within Hamas' ranks. The group maintains separate political and military wings, and political leaders based in Syria are more extreme than many of the leaders in the West Bank and Gaza.

Ghazi Hamad, spokesman for the Hamas government, said the political leadership was not warned ahead of time of the assault plans. However, he called talk of a split in Hamas "a big lie."

He said Hamas was working with Abbas and Egypt to resolve the situation. "I think we are interested in avoiding any confrontation or bloodshed," he told The Associated Press.

In Gaza City, dozens of relatives of the 8,000 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons urged militants to hold Shalit until Israel agreed to a large-scale release of jailed Palestinians.

"Kidnap a soldier and free 100 in return," the crowd said. "Twist the Zionists' hands. Hope they can learn."