Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has ruled out any possibility of a prisoner swap, or negotiations with the Hamas-led Palestinian government, to gain the release of an Israeli soldier held by Palestinian militants. Mr. Olmert also says the latest crisis in the Gaza Strip will not affect his plans to withdraw from large parts of the West Bank.
Speaking to foreign journalists in Jerusalem, Ehud Olmert rejected any criticism of Israel's military incursion into the Gaza Strip, saying the operation to free Israeli Army Corporal Gilad Shalit and stop Palestinian militants from firing Qassam rockets into Israel will continue as long as necessary.
"I will stop when I feel that I can provide security for the people of Israel," he said. "I will not stop until then. I will continue to take every possible legitimate measure of self-defense that will help provide better security for the people of Israel. The timing will be determined by the aggressors. The timing will be defined by those who initiated the terrorist actions against Israel. It is entirely up to them, if they stop it [attacks] we will stop it."
Mr. Olmert also ruled out any prisoner exchange with Hamas, or negotiations with the Islamic militant group to win the release of the Israeli serviceman.
Israeli troops entered the Gaza Strip two weeks ago, after Palestinian militants captured Corporal Shalit in a raid on an Israeli border post on the Gaza Strip. After heavy fighting, Israeli forces withdrew from the northern Gaza Strip on Saturday, but Israeli troops still occupy positions in the southern Gaza Strip and east of Gaza City.
At least 50 Palestinians and one Israeli have died in the fighting.
Both the European Union and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan have criticized Israel for using what they describe as a disproportionate use of force in the operation. Mr. Olmert has rejected the criticism, saying Israel has no other way to stop what he describes as the fear, the shocks and the lack of security for Israelis.
Israel's prime minister also says the Gaza operation will not derail his plans to withdraw from much of the West Bank during his term in office.
"I have not changed my basic commitment to the realignment plan," added Mr. Olmert. "I know this will be difficult, and it is difficult, but I am prepared to oppose those who are threatening the peaceful future of the Middle East. And, I am absolutely determined to carry on, in order to ultimately separate from the Palestinians and establish secure borders that will be recognized by the international community, while at the same time allow the Palestinians to have a contiguous territory, where they can have their own independent Palestinian state."
Mr. Olmert says Israel is not interested in toppling the Hamas-led Palestinian government, saying Israel's only interest is in freeing its serviceman and stopping terrorist attacks.
Speaking in Damascus on Monday, Hamas political leader Khaled Mashaal said Israel must free Palestinian prisoners, if it wants to gain the release of Corporal Shalit. The Hamas leader also says Hamas will not be defeated by the Israeli military.
Meshal says Israelis are dreaming, if they think they can defeat Hamas and that the militant group will continue its attacks against Israel
In his remarks, Meshal accused Israel and the United States of practicing terrorism against the Palestinian people.
Israel, the State Department and the European Union consider Hamas a terrorist organization for carrying out numerous attacks against Israel. Most international donor aid to the Palestinian government has been suspended, until Hamas agrees to recognize Israel, disarm and honor existing agreements between Palestinians and Israel, something Hamas leaders say they will not do.