Israel on Saturday refused to cave in to an ultimatum issued by Palestinian terrorists, who warned that a new wave of suicide bombing would be unleashed against Israel within 48 hours if it did not stop its four- day-long military operation in Gaza.
Forty-two Palestinians have been killed since Wednesday in the campaign in Beit Hanun, on Gaza's border with Israel. More than 200 people have been wounded in the sweep so far, including 29 who are in critical condition, Palestinian health officials said. One Israeli soldier has been killed in the fighting and one seriously wounded.
In response, Fatah's Aksa Martyrs Brigades, the Islamic Jihad's Al-Quds (Jerusalem) Brigades and the Popular Resistance Committees promised to "act with all [their] strength" to curb the IDF's incursions and made the threat to renew the suicide attacks.
During a press conference on Saturday, a spokesman for the Popular Resistance Committees who used the alias Abu Abdir also said that the Gaza operation in Beit Hanun - aimed at halting rockets attacks against Sderot and other Gaza border communities in Israel - could jeopardize ongoing talks regarding the release of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, kidnapped by Hamas on June 25. Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar also warned that the IDF could accidentally harm Shalit.
Abdir noted that so far the Palestinians had managed to hide Shalit and could continue to do so for the rest of his life.
But a government source in Jerusalem told The Jerusalem Post that Israel was not going to be moved by such threats. "We do not accept ultimatums," said the source.
The source noted that Hamas, which was launching the rockets and which had kidnapped Shalit, had rejected any kind of outreach on Israel's part. A Defense Ministry official said that the campaign was being waged because of defensive needs.
UN Ambassador Dan Gillerman reiterated Israel's right to defend itself, saying that the IDF was doing everything possible to avoid harm to citizens, often at the increased risk to IDF soldiers.
Gillerman told CNN Friday that the loss of any civilian life was a "terrible tragedy," but he said the IDF's moral restraint during the weekend's clashes was in stark contrast to that of Hamas and other terrorist organizations, who had launched more than 800 rockets indiscriminately into Israeli communities since Israel pulled out of Gaza in August 2005.
Meanwhile, Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas sent a message to the UN Security Council asking it to rein in the Israeli military, his spokesman said.
"He asks the members of the council to move quickly and discuss the tragic situation in the Palestinian territories caused by the Israeli aggression that has so far led to the killing of 42 Palestinians," Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rudaineh said in a statement.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas urged the UN to witness firsthand what he termed the massacres of the Palestinian people, and appealed to the Arab world to "stop the ongoing bloodshed." Already on Friday, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan urged Israel to exercise maximum restraint and to do their utmost to protect civilians. Annan said he was "deeply concerned about the continuing escalation of violence and the rising death toll caused by the Israeli military operation in northern Gaza." He also called on the Palestinians to stop firing rockets at civilian targets in Israel.
In contrast to the UN, United States Department spokesman Sean McCormack spoke in support of Israel's actions in Gaza on Friday even as he said it was "tragic" that innocent lives had been lost.
Israel entered Gaza to stop attacks on Israel from areas under the control of the Palestinian Authority, said McCormack.
"The situation originally developed because you have people, terrorists, continuing to launch rockets into Israel. Israel has taken steps to defend itself," he said.
In spite of the violence, talks brokered by Egypt continued regarding the release of Shalit. A senior Israeli official said "we are closer than we were two or three weeks ago" to swapping prisoners for Shalit.
Israeli representatives refused to give details about the negotiations, conducted through Egyptian mediators to avoid direct contact between Israel and Hamas, which Israel brands a terrorist organization. However, a senior Fatah official with knowledge of the contacts said Israel had softened its previous position refusing to discuss the criteria for which prisoners would be freed in exchange for Shalit.
Moussa Abu Marzouk, the Syria-based deputy to Hamas political chief Khaled Mashaal, complained that Israel was dragging its feet on the deal, but nevertheless predicted "there will be a prisoner swap." Abu Marzouk told The Associated Press by phone in Damascus that talks held in Cairo this week between a Hamas delegation and Egypt's chief of intelligence, Omar Suleiman, about the captured Israeli and the formation of a unity government were "good." He did not elaborate.
An official close to the talks said Hamas doesn't trust Israel to live up to its part of the deal, and wants Shalit handed over to a third party until Israel fulfills its part of the exchange.
The senior Israeli official confirmed back-channel contacts between Hamas representatives and Israeli representatives with close links to their government. He offered no details, but Palestinians with knowledge of the talks said Hamas reiterated its offer of a 10-year cease-fire, or "hudna," during which Israel and the Palestinians could seek a more permanent settlement.
Josh Brannon and AP contributed to this report