AFP - Israel's security cabinet voted on Wednesday to condition a Gaza truce on the release of a captive soldier, a move that risked further complicating Egyptian efforts to broker a lasting ceasefire.
The 12-member security cabinet voted unanimously to back outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's insistence that Gilad Shalit should be released as part of a deal with Hamas, a stance that the Islamists have already rejected.
"The security cabinet unanimously decided that the release of the soldier Shalit is a condition to any agreement with Hamas and the opening of border crossings," Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit told journalists after the meeting.
"It would be unthinkable for anybody to reach an accord with Hamas, whether through Egypt or not, without the release of Gilad Shalit" he said.
Olmert first made the demand that Shalit, a soldier seized by Gaza militants in June 2006, be released as part of a truce deal at the weekend, drawing furious criticism from Hamas.
"We want first to resolve the Shalit issue and then will look into the reopening of crossings and the rehabilitation of the Gaza Strip," he said on Tuesday, repeating his position.
His demand was swiftly rejected by Hamas's exiled leader Khaled Meshaal, who again accused Israel of backtracking on the terms of a proposed long-term truce by linking the lifting of the blockade to the soldier's release.
"Israel is responsible for blocking Egypt's efforts to broker a truce by adding a new condition at the last minute," Meshaal said after Damascus talks with Arab League chief Amr Mussa.
"A truce can come about only in exchange for a lifting of the blockade and the reopening of the crossing points. It is unacceptable to combine the truce issue with the question of Israeli prisoner Gilad Shalit," Meshaal said.
Egypt, which has been acting as intermediary in separate negotiations for a Gaza truce and for an exchange of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails for Shalit, has also said that the two issues should be kept separate.
"Egypt will not change its position on the truce -- the matter of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit is a separate issue which can in no way be linked to the truce negotiations," the state-owned Egyptian daily Al-Ahram quoted President Hosni Mubarak as saying.
Israel's pointman for the Egyptian negotiations, senior defence ministry official Amos Gilad, also lashed out at the changed Israeli position.
"Suddenly, the order of things has been changed. Suddenly, first we have to get Gilad. I don't understand that. Where does that lead, to insult the Egyptians? To make them want to drop the whole thing? What do we stand to gain from that?" the Maariv daily quoted him as telling an associate.
"The Egyptians have shown extraordinary courage. They've given us manoeuvering room, they're trying to mediate, they're investing efforts, they're showing goodwill of a kind they've never shown before," he said.
"Mubarak has been fair and courageous...What are we thinking? That they work for us? That they're a subordinate unit of ours?"
Shalit was captured in a deadly cross-border raid from Gaza in June 2006.
His family on Tuesday evening issued a statement demanding that his release should be "the first condition in any accord on a truce" with Hamas.
"The chance which currently presents itself must not be missed as it was in previous agreements," Israeli army radio quoted the statement as saying in reference to a six months' truce in Gaza agreed between Israel and Hamas in June last year.
Egypt has been acting as a go-between in efforts to consolidate the separate ceasefires that ended Israel's deadly 22-day Gaza offensive on January 18. The war killed more than 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis.
The ceasefires have been consistently rattled by Palestinian militant rocket fire and Israeli military raids.
Early on Wednesday Israeli jets struck a Hamas position and seven smuggling tunnels on the border between Gaza and Egypt. No one was reported hurt in the strike.