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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Militants Give Israelis an Ultimatum

BEIT HANOUN, Gaza Strip -- Palestinian militants who abducted an Israeli soldier gave Israel less than 24 hours on Monday to meet their demands to release Palestinian prisoners, threatening unspecified consequences if it refused.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert rejected the ultimatum and his defense chief said Israel would "know how to reach everyone responsible" if Corporal Gilad Shalit was harmed.

"If the enemy does not agree to our humanitarian demands, we will regard this case as closed," said "Military Communique 3," issued by the armed wing of the governing Hamas movement and two other factions.

"We give the Zionist enemy until 6 a.m. tomorrow [local time], Tuesday, the fourth of July," the statement said.

In previous communiques, the groups called on Israel, as a first step, to release some 400 Palestinian women and youths in its prisons in return for information about Shalit, abducted in a June 25 raid launched from Gaza.

The groups -- Hamas' Izz el-Deen al-Qassam Brigades, the Popular Resistance Committees and the previously unknown Islamic Army -- subsequently demanded Israel free 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.

Unless the demands were met, the factions said, "the enemy will bear full responsibility for future consequences."

The statement accused Israel, mounting an offensive in Gaza, of bad faith in an Egyptian mediation effort to end the crisis.

"The government of Israel will not yield to the extortion of the Palestinian Authority and the Hamas government, which are led by murderous terrorist organizations," Olmert's office said in a statement.

"We will not conduct any negotiations on a prisoner release," it said. "The Palestinian Authority bears full responsibility for the well-being of Gilad Shalit and his return, safe and sound, to Israel."

Israel, which pulled out of Gaza last year, sent troops and tanks into the southern Gaza Strip last Wednesday after gunmen seized Shalit, a 19-year-old tank gunner, in a raid in which two other soldiers and two of the attackers were killed.

Hours before the militants' communique, Israeli tanks and armored bulldozers pushed into the northern Gaza Strip in what an Israeli military source described as a "pinpoint operation" to locate tunnels and explosives near the border fence.

A Palestinian gunman in the area was killed by an Israeli aircraft, witnesses said. The Israeli military said it opened fire on two armed men.

A Reuters reporter in the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun said the bulldozers appeared to be preparing the ground for a possible wider incursion into the area, used by militants as a launch site for daily rocket attacks against southern Israel.

Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz said the group's headquarters in Damascus, Syria, under exiled leader Khaled Meshaal, "is the main address that bears responsibility" for the soldier's abduction. "I suggest to [Syrian President] Bashar Assad, who is trying to turn a blind eye, that he open his eyes, as the responsibility is at his doorstep," Peretz said.