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'SHATTERING THE ILLUSION'

IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz: 'The Israeli soldier is alive and we hold Hamas responsible for his welfare. Hamas is involved from head to foot'

wounded Israeli soldier

Israel has issued an ultimatum to Palestinian leadership demanding the immediate return of the IDF soldier who was abducted by Palestinian attackers from the Gaza Strip. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has held consultations with defense officials and the security cabinet to decide on the Israeli response to what is being viewed as a grave escalation. The assault came near Kibbutz Kerem Shalom.

'The Israeli soldier is alive and we hold Hamas responsible for his welfare. Hamas is involved from head to foot'. That's the reaction of IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz.

The race is on to retrieve the IDF soldier who was abducted by Palestinian gunmen in a daring dawn raid into Israel. Eight Palestinians tunneled under the security fence from the Gaza Strip to surprise IDF troops manning an observation post. They split into three squads- one took out an Israeli tank with rocket propelled grenades. An officer and one of the tank crew were killed. A third soldier was abducted by the attackers and taken back into the Gaza Strip. Two other Palestinians were killed when they tried to storm the observation post. Four IDF soldiers were wounded, one seriously. The attackers also destroyed an unmanned personnel carrier. Simultaneously, Palestinians inside the Gaza Strip opened fire on the IDF position. The terrorists also filmed the attack from a distance and military sources say it bore the trade mark of Hezbollah operations in south Lebanon. Moreover, advisors from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards are known to be training Hamas and Islamic Jihad gunmen.

Before holding urgent consultations, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert accused Hamas of carrying out a 'grave terror attack'. He held the Palestinian Authority headed by Mahmoud Abbas and the Hamas administration responsible. In Damascus, Hamas leader Haled Mashal reportedly approved the attack. Defense Minister Amir Peretz warned Hamas would pay a 'painful price'. Last week, after the Palestinians fired some 100 rockets at the Israeli town of Sderot, Peretz vetoed an IDF proposal to launch a major ground operation into the Gaza Strip. Today, Chief of Staff Halutz did not rule this out after 'the dust settles'. Meanwhile, IDF forces have been operating inside the Gaza Strip blowing up the tunnel and clearing the ground in front of the observation post. Other measures have been taken to locate the abducted soldier. But Hamas says Israel will have to make concessions for any information.

Mahmoud Abbas

Chairman Abbas has condemned the attack warning the Palestinian groups involved would bear responsibility for a possible IDF invasion. Israel has reportedly issued Abbas an ultimatum to return the soldier - or else.

The raid could not have come at a worse time for Abbas. He had been trying to cajole Hamas and the others into halt the Qassam rocketing and starting peace talks. Abbas also had a friendly meeting with Olmert in Jordan a few days ago; all that has now gone by the board. Hamas has code- named the raid 'Shattering The Illusion' which appears to be a dead ringer for peace prospects now.

The IDF was caught by surprise; General Halutz remarked: 'We expect such encounters to end differently.' In fact, the IDF was on high alert after a commando raid the night before plucked two wanted terrorists out of the Gaza Strip.

There can be no doubt the Palestinian raid has crossed an Israeli red line - it is the gravest escalation since Israel evacuated all its troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip last summer. It is difficult now to foresee the outcome.
David Essing

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