Amid growing fears of a large-scale IDF operation in the Gaza Strip, the Hamas government has appealed to Jordan, Egypt and other Arab countries to talk with Israel about a prisoner swap that would lead to the release of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit and thousands of Palestinians held in Israeli jails.
Sources close to Hamas said the call was relayed to Egyptian, Jordanian and Qatari mediators who have been trying to secure Shalit's release.
This was the first time that the Hamas government had expressed its desire to hold talks with Israel to discuss the possibility of a prisoner exchange.
Taher al-Nunu, a spokesman for the Palestinian Authority Foreign Ministry, confirmed that his government had approached some Arab countries with a request to mediate between Hamas and Israel to find a peaceful solution.
"We have called on some Arab countries to launch a diplomatic effort to reach an agreement about a prisoner exchange with Israel," he said. "We hope that the crisis will be resolved peacefully and through negotiations."
Moussa Abu Marzouk, Hamas political leader Khaled Mashaal's deputy, said he believed the kidnappers want to keep the soldier alive to trade him for prisoners.
"For sure, he's in hands that will protect him and treat him well. Our morals and our religion dictate that we do this to every prisoner," he said. He also warned that a military operation could jeopardize the life of Shalit.
"Gaza is a small area," Abu Marzouk said. "Cleansing the area would certainly affect the life of the prisoner soldier. He is among the resistance people."
Osama Hamdan, a Hamas official in Beirut, said Israel's offensive would not change the movement's demand for a prisoner exchange.
If Israel does not negotiate a prisoner swap, the kidnappers would conclude "that they should capture more soldiers so that the Israelis will speak to them," he said. "The message for the resistance is to kill soldiers, even if they have the opportunity to capture them."
Hamdan denied that Mashaal was behind the kidnapping and warned Israel against trying to assassinate him. Mashaal, who lives in Damascus, has been summoned to Cairo for urgent talks with Egyptian government officials about the latest crisis. Hamas officials said Mashaal was expected to meet with Egyptian Intelligence chief Omar Suleiman within the next 48 hours.
The Hamas government also called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss Israel's military activities in the Gaza Strip in the past 48 hours. The PA Foreign Ministry said it had asked its representative to the UN to hold consultations with Arab representatives about issuing a call for an emergency meeting of the Security Council to condemn Israel's raids on the Gaza Strip.
"We are demanding an international commission of inquiry into the massacres perpetrated by Israel against the Palestinians," said a statement issued by the ministry. "We have also called for an emergency meeting of the Arab League to discuss the latest deterioration."
While most of the senior Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip have gone underground for fear of being targeted by Israel, the movement's officials in the West Bank continued to hold press conferences to strongly condemn Israel's military strikes. Deputy Prime Minister Nasser al-Shaer and Finance Minister Omar Abdel Razek accused Israel of waging a "war of genocide."
However, they said their government wanted a peaceful solution to the crisis. "We call for pursuing diplomatic efforts to solve the problem peacefully," they said. "Negotiations should not be ruled out and this case should be dealt with in accordance with international laws and conventions."
PA President Mahmoud Abbas expressed outrage over Tuesday night's IDF military strikes in the Gaza Strip and accused Israel of committing "crimes against humanity."
His spokesman Nabil Abu Rudaineh said the timing of the IDF attacks came as a surprise to Abbas because they followed the announcement about an agreement between Hamas and Fatah over the prisoners' document.
"President Abbas is continuing his contacts with Arab and world leaders to stop the Israeli aggression," he said. "Israel is following a policy of collective punishment which will only complicate matters."