Sunday, June 25, 2006

IDF preparing Gaza ground attack

Jun. 25, 2006
Secret diplomatic efforts were underway on Sunday night in order to secure the release of the kidnapped IDF soldier, cpl. Gilad Shalit.

IDF sources said that the soldier was receiving medical treatment in the Gaza Strip, Army Radio reported.

Israel Radio reported that the mediation efforts were being led by Egyptian security and diplomatic officials.

PM Olmert said in the cabinet meeting on Sunday that Israel was not going to negotiate for the release of the IDF soldier, and was not going to exchange Palestinian prisoners for the soldier.

Despite an intelligence warning of an imminent attack in the area, the IDF was caught off guard early Sunday morning when Palestinian gunmen, among them Hamas operatives, tunneled across the border from the southern Gaza Strip and assaulted a military post near the Kerem Shalom crossing. Two soldiers were killed and a third was captured in the attack.

"We intend to respond to this morning's incident in a way in which all involved... understand that the price will be painful," Defense Minister Amir Peretz announced at a news conference in Tel Aviv.

For Jerusalem Online video coverage of the day's events click here.

At press time, the Security Cabinet unanimously green-lighted a major ground incursion into Gaza, to be launched at the discretion of the prime minister and defense minister, and soldiers from the Golani and Givati infantry brigades were massing around the Gaza Strip.

Lt. Hanan Barak, 20, and St.-Sgt. Pavel Slutsker, 20, were killed when the gunmen attacked their tank with a rocket and bombs, OC Gaza Big.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi told reporters at a briefing in nearby Kibbutz Kerem Shalom. The tank driver was seriously wounded and Cpl. Gilad Shalit, 19, was captured by the attackers. Other gunmen also attacked a tower and an unmanned armored personnel carrier.

Three other soldiers, responding to the initial attacks, were lightly wounded when a bomb left behind by the terrorists exploded. Helicopter crews evacuated the wounded to Soroka Hospital in Beersheba.

Three gunmen were killed in the ensuing battle, Palestinian sources said.

Senior Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) sources said that they had given the IDF specific intelligence regarding the attack, including the probable location and possible use of tunnels. Peretz, however, told reporters that the IDF had only received a general warning.

At the Kerem Shalom briefing, Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz admitted the IDF had been taken by surprise. "The incident in Kerem Shalom caught us unprepared," he said. "This incident is a hundred times worse because this is not the consequence we hope for in such an encounter."

He said he had many reasons to believe Shalit was still alive, but did not elaborate.

OC Manpower Maj.-Gen. Elazar Stern said Shalit walked from the tank under his own power, and was forced across the fence into Gaza by the Palestinian gunmen, who blew a hole in the barrier.

"I told the family that we know Gilad was forced to walk against his will during the incident. We believe he is alive and being held captive," Stern said after visiting Shalit's family in his hometown of Mitzpe Hila, near Karmiel in the western Galilee.

Peretz telephoned the Shalit family on Sunday evening, and assured the father that Shalit's safe return was the IDF's highest priority.

Shalit is the first soldier to be seized by Palestinian gunmen since Cpl. Nachshon Wachsman, a 19-year-old Israeli-American, was abducted 12 years ago. Wachsman was killed, along with three of his captors, when commandos stormed the house where he was held in an attempt to free him; one of the commandos was also killed.

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