“Faced with the Zionist enemy’s persistence in taking military measures and aggressions, we give it a delay expiring Tuesday, July 4 at 6:00 am (1500 AEST),” said a statement issued by the Popular Resistance Committees, the armed wing of the governing Hamas movement and the Army of Islam in Gaza.
“If the enemy does not meet the demands we laid out in our previous statement… we will consider the matter closed and the enemy will be responsible for all results.”
An Israeli military official later rejected the deadline, saying: “We are studying the statement and for the moment are sticking to the official position expressed by the prime minister rejecting any negotiations with the kidnappers or giving into any blackmail”.
In previous statements, the militant groups demanded that Israel, as a first stage, release Palestinian women and youths in its prisons in exchange for information about Corporal Gilad Shalit, kidnapped by gunmen in a cross-border raid on June 25.
The groups have also called on Israel to free 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said he would not bend to “extortionist” demands to release prisoners.
In other developments, the pan-Arab newspaper Al Hayat has reported an Egyptian security team visited Corporal Shalit in Gaza as part of an attempt to mediate a solution between Israel and the Palestinian militants holding him.
Citing what it called “informed Palestinian sources,” the paper said the Egyptians found the soldier was being treated by a Palestinian doctor for “three bullet wounds” but did not say when the visit took place.
Israel moves on Gaza
Israel sent troops and tanks into northern Gaza and carried out a sixth night of air raids after warning it would use all its power to free Corporal Shalit.
The latest military action followed threats by the armed wing of the governing Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas that it would strike civilians in Israel if the Gaza offensive is not halted.
An AFP photographer saw around 50 tanks and armoured personal carriers cross into northern Gaza early Monday and slowly snake their way through farmland before heading towards the outskirts of built-up areas.
But the Israeli military said the incursion, the first into northern Gaza since the offensive was launched last Tuesday, was limited in scope and duration.
“A limited number of troops entered the northern Gaza Strip to conduct searches for explosive devices and tunnels” dug by militants into Israel, a source said.
More air strikes
The raid followed a series of air strikes on weapons depots, a Hamas office and buildings run by the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a militant group loosely affiliated to Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas’s Fatah party.
Four Palestinians were reported wounded.
On Sunday, Israel fired off a dramatic warning to the embattled Palestinian administration with an air strike on the Gaza office of Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniya that left the building ablaze.
The armed wing of Hamas, which is blacklisted by Israel and the West as a terror group, threatened to retaliate by resuming attacks inside Israel, predicting the region would sink in a “sea of blood” if the Gaza offensive continued.
Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erakat warned that the Israeli air strikes were only escalating the crisis.
“I don’t want to sound pessimistic, but I’m really afraid that every hour that passes… we’re going to lose the ability to solve the crisis, diplomatically and politically,” he told CNN.
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan expressed concern that the Israeli onslaught could undermine the possibilities for a lasting settlement of the Middle East conflict.
The international community has issued urgent appeals for restraint on both sides to ensure the standoff does not spread across the region, while US President George W. Bush said the release of the soldier was “key” to ending the crisis.