Prime Minister Ehud Olmert held high level security consultations, some 60 hours after Gilad Shalit was captured, amid a growing feeling that military action is inevitable.
Soon after Shalit was kidnapped on Sunday, government officials said that the first 48 hours were critical, and that if no information on the captive soldier was provided via intensive diplomatic pressure, there would be no choice but to take military action.
"If there is no new information, we will have to take action," one government source said Tuesday. "If you don't have information about his whereabouts, and the information is drying up, then it weighs heavily toward taking action."
The various military options discussed over the last few days range from widespread ground operations inside Gaza to targeted hits on Hamas leaders, both inside the PA and abroad.
The IDF continues to amass troops and armor along the Gaza border in preparation for a possible invasion, even though
Shalit is being held there. Government and military officials seemed reluctant to launch a large-scale ground operation while there was a chance Shalit might be harmed.
Military officials would neither confirm or deny that forces could roll into northern Gaza in an operation aimed at preventing Palestinian cross-border rocket fire, and increasing pressure on the Palestinian Authority.
A senior military intelligence official told the Knesset's Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee Tuesday that the Hamas military wing was holding Shalit captive in the southern Gaza Strip.
Military intelligence feared Shalit's captors would attempt to smuggle him across Gaza's southern border into Egypt, the official said.
Despite a buildup of Egyptian border guards along the border with Gaza, the area was not hermetically sealed, the official added. Tunnels used for smuggling arms and contraband have long been known to exist underneath the border.
Egyptian officials confirmed an extra 2,500 troops had been deployed along the border, both to prevent attempts to smuggle Shalit across but also to deter Palestinians from breaching the border and fleeing into Sinai in the event of an Israeli invasion into Gaza.
Hamas members holding Shalit were receiving orders from Hamas leader-in-exile Khaled Mashaal, based in Syria. Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh was not aware of Shalit's exact whereabouts, but did know the people who were holding him, according to the official.
The Israeli military official said Egypt had made efforts to free Shalit, and an Egyptian official said Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman had contacted Mashaal and urged for his release. However, there was not enough international pressure being placed on Hamas to secure Shalit's release, he said.
Defense Minister Amir Peretz contacted Suleiman late Monday and requested his involvement in locating Shalit, the Defense Ministry confirmed.
Forces loyal to Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas had not made a serious effort to locate Shalit, he said.
Israel, meanwhile, was also reportedly urging the US and France to press Syria to expel Mashal. Regarding Syria, US ambassador Richard Jones told reporters Tuesday "the problem is in Damascus and that's where I think we should focus the world's attention."
Briefing the Knesset committee, Deputy Chief of General Staff Maj.-Gen. Moshe Kaplinsky said that during Sunday's dawn attack, six minutes elapsed between when Palestinian attackers first fired on the tank Shalit was in and when they managed to flee with him into Gaza. Altogether, 19 minutes passed until the IDF shot dead one of the attackers inside Gaza, he said.
Kaplinsky confirmed there had been a general warning of an attack in the area between the Kerem Shalom crossing and the nearby Sufa crossing for 10 days prior to the attack.
Cpl. Ro'i Amitai, who was in the tank that was attacked, told reporters Tuesday that troops had received a warning the day before the incident that Palestinians had dug a tunnel in the area and planned to launch an attack. Amitai, who was in the tank's driver compartment when the attack took place, was seriously wounded when the attackers threw two grenades inside before fleeing with Shalit.
In an interview for Israeli television, Amitai's brother Tomer related how his brother had finished his guarding shift shortly before the attack, and according to standard military operating procedure had gone to sleep in the driver's compartment when he heard two loud explosions and then his commander yelling to get out of the tank. Amitai did not manage to exit the tank before he was wounded and apparently overlooked by the attackers.
Military officials would not confirm reports Tuesday that tank commander Lt. Hanan Barak and Sgt. Pavel Slotzker were shot and killed at short range after they exited the tank under fire, and assumed they were being attacked from the direction of Gaza to the west.
But the tunnel dug by the attackers extended beyond the tank's position facing the Gaza fence, and the troops were surprised from the rear.
The tunnel was a kilometer long and took approximately two months to dig, the senior military official addressing the Knesset committee said Tuesday. The official said the tunnel was dug from the basement of a building rented by Hamas who had brought in people with experience digging tunnels across the Gaza border with Egypt to do the job.
Meeting with troops stationed near the site of Sunday's attack, IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz denied that the military had not taken the necessary precautions in light of warnings of a possible attack.
"The troops operated according to a number of possible scenarios... They tried to provide an optimal solution that would apply to all those scenarios," he told reporters as he visited with troops stationed at Kerem Shalom along the Gaza border, where Sunday's attack took place.
The attackers would pay for their actions, he said. "We may change our operations here from defensive to offensive," he told troops from Shalit's unit, Armored Battalion 71.
Halutz denied that the IDF and the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) were in conflict over the nature of warnings about a pending attack. "There was a warning, and it gave us the opportunity to prepare the troops," he said.
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