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Militants Issue Ultimatum over Captive Palestinians

LYNN NEARY, host:

Three militant Palestinian groups believed to be holding a captured Israeli soldier today issued an ultimatum. In a statement faxed to news agencies, they said Israel has until tomorrow to release Palestinian prisoners or, quote, "face the consequences."

Also today, a small force of Israeli tanks moved into northern Gaza in what Israeli officials said was a limited operation to find tunnels and explosives.

NPR's Linda Gradstein visited a northern Gaza town and has this report.

LINDA GRADSTEIN reporting:

Samayah Farhat(ph) lives with her husband and nine of her eleven children in a small house with a corrugated tin roof in the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun. Most of the children sleep on mattresses on the floor in one room. For a week now, she and her family have braced for an Israeli invasion of her town. Israeli artillery fires almost constantly.

(Soundbite of gunshots)

GRADSTEIN: In her home's small kitchen, she has filled every available pot and jar with water. Since an Israeli air strike on Wednesday knocked out part of Gaza's main power plant, she only has electricity for an hour each day. Water service has also been intermittent.

The summer days in Gaza are sweltering and she's afraid to let her children leave the house. But she says the nights with the almost continuous shelling and frequent sonic booms from Israeli aircraft are the worst.

Ms. SAMAYAH FARHAT: (Through translator) At night, I was getting really panicked. I wake up so scared. I thought that the explosion was inside our house. Normally, we leave the windows and the doors open because of the explosion to make it less dangerous.

GRADSTEIN: Shrapnel has landed on the roof of her house several times. And the hardest thing to see, she says, is what the barrage of shelling is doing to her children.

Ms. FARHAT: (Through translator) Also the dark, because they cut the electricity, all the kids are getting a real panic when it start to be dark. You know, we spend our lives here lighting one candle, sitting around it until the kids are sleeping.

GRADSTEIN: One of her sons, 21-year-old Ali(ph), is a policeman. He hasn't been paid in five months because of the international community sanctions on the Hamas government. So he also drives a taxi to try to make some money for his family. He says everyone in Beit Hanoun is braced for an Israeli invasion.

Mr. ALI FARHAT: (Through translator) We're really concerned, because it is very possible. We just wait for them any moment to invade the area. At night, you would see nobody. Everybody will be inside his home locking the door and just waiting.

GRADSTEIN: Israeli officials say the militant groups, which kidnapped the Israeli soldier, are responsible for the people suffering. The goal of the shelling and the sonic booms, they say, is to pressure the Palestinian into demanding that Hamas free the captured Israeli soldier.

Egypt and other states have been involved in diplomatic negotiations to free the soldier. The Israeli Ha'aretz Newspaper today reported that Israel may be willing to release some Palestinian prisoners and dozens of Hamas lawmakers arrested last week in exchange for the soldier. According to Ha'aretz, no prisoners involved in terrorist attacks will be freed.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev denied the report and said Israel has no intention of exchanging prisoners for the captured soldier. However, he said, if the soldier is freed and negotiations with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas resume, Israel could release prisoners as a goodwill gesture as they have done in the past.

In Beit Hanoun, Samayah Farhat says Palestinian militants should free the Israeli soldier, but Israel should also compromise. The militant groups had originally demanded the release of Palestinian women and children in Israeli jails in return for information about the soldier.

Ms. FARHAT (Through translator): For sure, I am in favor of releasing the soldier, of course. We don't want to keep him as well. But also, maybe they should release the children and the women. Why they keep them? They are not guilty. They are just kids and they are women. Why they punish them?

GRADSTEIN: Meanwhile, in the southern Gaza town of Rafah, where Israeli tanks have been operating since last week, Israeli soldiers killed three Palestinian gunmen overnight. Israel said the men tried to attack Israeli soldiers and two of them were wearing explosives belts.

Linda Gradstein, NPR News, 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.