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Deadline Passes as Israel Refuses Prisoner Release


It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steven Inskeep.


And I'm Lynn Neary, in for Renee Montagne.

A deadline set by Palestinian militants for Israel to begin releasing Palestinian prisoners has come and gone. The militants say they will provide no further information about the Israeli soldiers seized last month near Israel's border with the Gaza Strip. Israel has refused to negotiate for the soldier's freedom. Mark Regev is a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

Mr. MARK REGEV (Spokesman, Israeli Foreign Ministry): Our chosen policy preference is that he is released, and this can end peacefully. You can't just give into their demands. If we give into these demands now - I mean every extremist with a gun will be eager to take another hostage and come with even more outrageous demands, and it's a never-ending circle.

NEARY: Overnight, Israel resumed artillery fire and airstrikes on northern Gaza. One person was killed. NPR's Linda Gradstein is in Gaza City and joins us now.

Linda, now that his deadline has passed, what are the militant groups saying?


Well, the soldier was captured by three separate militant groups. One is the military wing of Hamas, one is the Popular Resistance Committees, and the third is this previously unknown group called the Islamic Army, which is believed to be an offshoot of the Popular Resistance Committees. And only the Islamic Army has responded, saying that the file is now closed and that Israel will not receive any further information about the fate of the soldier. At the same time, the statement said that according to Islam it is forbidden to kill prisoners, so leaving the door open.

NEARY: The Egyptians had been trying to help reach a diplomatic solution, are there any other negotiations going on at this point?

GRADSTEIN: The Egyptians are still negotiating, and so far they have been the main channel. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak met with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to try to ask him to pressure the militants. The Egyptians have also been talking to the Syrians because the head of Hamas in Damascus, Khaled Mashaal, is believed to be involved with this as well.

Now there were reports that France is getting involved. The kidnapped Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, also has French citizenship, and there are reports that one proposal offered by France is that the soldier would be taken either to Egypt or to France, and to be safeguarded while the negotiations continue, but these are at a very preliminary stage.

NEARY: Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert insisted his government will not negotiate with those holding the soldier, but there have been prisoner exchanges in the past, so how firm is that?

GRADSTEIN: Well, it's hard to know. I mean one thing Israeli officials have said is that Olmert believes that Israel may have made a mistake in the past, that by negotiating and by giving up prisoners in the last case, which I believe was about a year and a half ago, Israel released 400 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the bodies of three Israeli soldiers and an Israeli businessman who had been held by Hezbollah for several years.

NEARY: There were more Israeli airstrikes overnight, what's known about the damage as a result from those?

GRADSTEIN: Well, the airstrikes hit the Islamic university in Gaza and destroyed one of the buildings. The Islamic university is right in the center of Gaza City and it was believed to be sort of a message to Hamas that Israel can hit Hamas, you know, whenever it wants to. There was also an airstrike against men that Israel said were gunmen planting explosives next to the border fence in northern Gaza, and one a person was killed. There's also been quite a bit of artillery fire. I can hear, you know, the booms of the shells about every ten seconds or so, but those shells have been landing mostly in open areas.

NEARY: All right, well thanks a lot for talking with us, Linda.

GRADSTEIN: Thank you.

NEARY: NPR's Linda Gradstein talking with us from Gaza City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Linda Gradstein
Linda Gradstein has been the Israel correspondent for NPR since 1990. She is a member of the team that received the Overseas Press Club award for her coverage of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the team that received Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia University Award for Excellence in Broadcast Journalism for her coverage of the Gulf War. Linda spent 1998-9 as a Knight Journalist Fellow at Stanford University.
Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.