The two most powerful players in the violent confrontation over the capture of an Israeli soldier by Palestinian militants offered sharply differing visions Monday on how to resolve the crisis.
Hamas political leader Khaled Mashaal demanded a prisoner swap. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that would be a “major mistake.”
The men spoke within hours of each other — Olmert in Jerusalem, Mashaal in Damascus, Syria. Neither expressed any willingness to compromise, boding poorly for any end soon to Israel’s 12-day-old incursion into the Gaza Strip that has killed nearly 60 Palestinians.
“They will never be able to win from me any minor concession,” Mashaal insisted in his first public appearance since the June 25 capture of the 19-year-old Israeli soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit.
‘Blood on his hands’
Speaking to foreign reporters, Olmert saved some of his harshest rhetoric for the political head of Hamas, whose Islamic militants have staged dozens of suicide bombings in Israel.
“Khaled Mashaal is a terrorist with blood on his hands. He’s not a legitimate partner for anything. He’s not a partner and he won’t be a partner. I will not negotiate with Hamas,” the Israeli leader said.
At the same time, however, Olmert said the violence in Gaza would not deter him from carrying out his plan to leave the West Bank, despite a growing sentiment among Israelis that last year’s Gaza pullout was a failure because it hasn’t stopped Palestinian attacks on Israel.
Shalit’s seizure in a cross-border raid and Israel’s harsh response have turned the already tense relations between Israel and the Palestinians’ Hamas-led government into a violent onslaught.
Blood continues to flow
Four militants were killed in three Israeli airstrikes Monday, and three others were killed in a fourth Israeli attack in northern Gaza on Monday night. The army said the last attack targeted militants who had just launched a rocket into Israel.
An 8-year-old girl was among five Palestinians wounded late Sunday by an Israeli missile attack targeting a car loaded with explosives. Rockets fired into Israel on Sunday wounded one person.
Dispelling media reports of a likely deal with Hamas, Olmert said “trading prisoners with a terrorist, bloody organization such as Hamas is a major mistake that will cause a lot of damage to the future of state of Israel.”
But Mashaal insisted Israel must release some prisoners before Shalit can be freed.
“The solution is simple: an exchange. But Israel refuses that,” he said, adding that the Israelis are “under an illusion” if they think escalating their offensive will win the soldier’s release.
Olmert defended his army’s incursion, saying Israel had no choice but to launch it to win Shalit’s freedom and halt militant rocker fire into Israel. He rebuked European Union criticism that Israel is using disproportionate force, saying Palestinian rockets terrorize tens of thousands of people in southern Israel.
“When was the last time that the European Union condemned this shooting (of rockets) and suggested effective measures to stop it?” he asked. “I can imagine that some of those countries that preach to us would have done a lot more, in a more brutal and vicious and cruel way against civilian populations, than what we did.”
Olmert declined to set any timetable for the incursion.
Israel expanded the operation last week into northern Gaza, seeking to deny firing sites to militants who have launched rockets into Israel for months. Tanks and soldiers are on the ground, and Israel has carried out numerous airstrikes, leading to widespread destruction.
Olmert said Israel is not trying to topple the Palestinian government, although he said Hamas leaders are “directly involved in terror.” His government has arrested dozens of Hamas political figures.
“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,” he said.
‘Israel and America ... are the worst’
Mashaal, who is considered more hard-line than Hamas leaders in the Palestinian territories, said he held “Olmert and his hostile policies” responsible for what happens to Shalit.
He said he doesn’t fear Israeli threats to assassinate him because “I am yearning to meet God.”
Mashaal survived an Israeli assassination attempt in 1997.
“Today, Israel is really terrorizing our people,” Mashaal said. “Israel and America, which talked too much about this terrorism in the past, are the worst, severest and ugliest examples of terrorism.”
Olmert ruled out negotiations with either Mashaal or the Hamas-led government that took power after winning legislative elections in January.
“This is not a government which is influenced by terror. This is not a government which sympathizes with terror. This government is terror,” Olmert said.
Separation of Israelis and Palestinians continue
He said the West Bank pullback would go forward.
“I am absolutely determined to carry out the separation from the Palestinians and establish secure borders,” he said.
Olmert wants to withdraw from most of the West Bank by 2010 to allow the Palestinians to gain independence and to secure a long-term Jewish majority for Israel.
“We want to separate in a friendly manner and to live alongside each other ... in a peaceful way,” he said. “If the terrorist organizations will impose a violent confrontation, both Israelis and Palestinians will have to bear the consequences. That can’t stop the inevitable process of separation of Israelis and Palestinians.”