Palestinian guerrillas kidnaped an Israeli police officer Sunday and threatened to kill him unless the government freed the imprisoned leader of their militant Islamic group.
Members of the military wing of the Islamic Resistance Movement said in a statement that Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the 57-year-old founder of their movement, had to be released by 9 p.m. Israeli time Sunday (11 a.m. PST) or “this officer will be killed as soon as this limited period ends.”
Long after the deadline passed, however, Yassin had not been freed, according to Israeli officials, and there was no word of the fate of Sgt. Maj. Nissim Toledano, 29, a maintenance officer at the headquarters of Israel’s paramilitary border police near Tel Aviv.
“We have no news of . . . Toledano,” a newscaster said at the start of the late-night news on state-run Israel Radio. “We have nothing new to report. . . . We are waiting.”
The Defense Ministry, which is headed by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, warned in stern terms of the “grave seriousness” with which the government views the kidnaping and declared that it “holds his kidnapers and those who sent them responsible for his safety and release.”
“The government strongly warns against any harm that might come to . . . Toledano,” the ministry said in a statement that left little doubt that there would be deadly retribution were Toledano killed.
But Hamas, as the Islamic Resistance Movement is known from its Arabic initials, appears determined to escalate the Palestinian confrontation with Israel. In the past week, it has killed four Israeli soldiers--three in an ambush in the occupied Gaza Strip and one near the West Bank town of Hebron.
“Our group kidnaped one of the officers of the occupation on Dec. 13, 1992,” the movement’s military wing said in a statement. “We are demanding the occupation authorities and Israeli leaders release Sheik Ahmed Yassin in exchange for releasing this officer.”
Toledano was apparently abducted about 4:30 a.m. in an Arab neighborhood of Lod, a mixed Arab-Jewish city near Tel Aviv. A resident of Lod, Toledano normally passed that way each day on his way to work, Israeli officials said.
Masked men delivered the Hamas statement 6 1/2 hours later to the International Committee of the Red Cross at its offices in the West Bank town of El Bireh, north of Jerusalem.
The kidnaping plunged Israel into a national emergency. A small and tightly knit country where terrorism is an everyday concern for many, Israel responds organically to such crises, rallying to the government, blessing the security forces in whatever their leaders think must be done and worrying about its young men and women in the army.
The Cabinet, already in session Sunday morning, turned its attention to the kidnaping. Rabin convened a second meeting late Sunday to review the situation, and Israel Radio reported that the government had decided not to negotiate without evidence that Toledano is alive.
A massive manhunt was under way in both Israel and the occupied territories, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and the army announced it was closing the West Bank for an unspecified period from midnight Sunday and continuing a weeklong closure of the occupied Gaza Strip. All residents of the two territories were told to return to their homes immediately.
Hundreds of Israeli youths marched through Lod chanting “Death to the Arabs.”
Israel’s chief rabbis called for special prayers for Toledano’s safety to be recited in synagogues this morning.
And in a television and radio appeal, Yassin urged the guerrillas to spare Toledano. “I don’t support the killing of this man,” Yassin said in an interview at the prison in Kfar Yona where he is being held.
“In the name of God before anything else, I advise everyone to preserve human life, and I advise the kidnapers, whoever they are, to preserve the life of this person until the authorities have a chance to listen to their demands and respond in proper time,” Yassin said, speaking faintly and sounding weak.
Yassin called for negotiations, but he also blamed the bloodshed on Israel’s 25-year occupation of the Gaza Strip. “If we remove the circumstances of the occupation, everything will change by itself,” he said.
The cleric, who suffers from lung and eye ailments as well as paralysis from a childhood accident, denied reports that his health is failing. “My condition is so-so,” he said, looking frail with a towel around his shoulders. He added that he has been well-treated at the prison.
Yassin, a charismatic figure among Gaza residents despite his infirmities, was sentenced in October, 1991, to life imprisonment for ordering the deaths of four suspected Palestinian collaborators. He was convicted of manslaughter after murder charges were dropped against him in the disappearance of two soldiers kidnaped by Hamas in 1989; the body of one was found, but the second was never recovered.
The kidnaping of Toledano came during a weeklong escalation of violence in the occupied territories, resulting in the deaths of eight Palestinians and five Israelis, as Palestinians marked the fifth anniversary of their uprising against the occupation.
In the Gaza Strip, Palestinians rioted for a second day, and Israeli troops shot and killed one youth there and wounded 17 others in attempting to subdue the protests. The riots followed the fatal ambush Monday of the three Israeli soldiers by Hamas.
On the West Bank, an Israeli soldier was killed and two others were wounded when their jeep was shot up by a passing Palestinian car in the town of Hebron late Saturday. Hamas also claimed responsibility for the attack.
Founded five years ago at the start of the intifada, as the Palestinian rebellion is known, Hamas is challenging the Palestine Liberation Organization and particularly its mainstream group, Fatah, for the leadership of the 2 million Palestinians living under Israeli rule.
Hamas opposes Palestinian participation in the year-old Arab-Israeli peace talks under way in Washington, and it is winning increasing popular support on the West Bank as well as in the Gaza Strip as the negotiations drag on for a Palestinian state.
The continuing strife in Gaza brought a renewed demand Sunday from four of Israel’s 17 Cabinet ministers that Israel consider a unilateral withdrawal from the territory.
“We have no long-term interest in being in Gaza,” Health Minister Haim Ramon declared after the Cabinet meeting. “There is room to consider within a period of a year and a half or two years . . . that a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza is a possibility.”
Ministers from the Labor Party’s two coalition partners in the government, Shas and Meretz, also backed withdrawal from Gaza at the meeting, but Rabin was described as opposed to the idea on grounds that such a move would upset the peace talks, where Israel has proposed autonomy for the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.
“We must think about a possible realignment of our forces in the Gaza Strip so that our soldiers will not be exposed to this barrage of hatred, stones and violence,” said Energy Minister Amnon Rubinstein of the left-wing Meretz alliance.
The past two weeks of unrest have been among the bloodiest since the start of peace talks in October, 1991.
So far this year, 126 Palestinians have been killed by Israelis--40 since Oct. 1. The 13 Israeli soldiers to die this year exceed the total of 11 killed in all four previous years of the Palestinian revolt.
The proposal to pull out of the Gaza Strip is consistent with a longtime Labor Party position but does not extend to the West Bank, where most of the 120,000 Jewish settlers in the occupied territories live.
Israel captured the seaside Gaza Strip from Egypt in the 1967 Middle East War. Many of the 750,000 Palestinians living there are impoverished refugees whose families fled Israel in 1948 after the establishment of the Jewish state.