Israeli soldiers rescue kidnapped taxi driver in West Bank raid

JERUSALEM -- Israeli special forces stormed a house in the West Bank early Wednesday and freed a taxi driver from his Palestinian captors, the military said, ending an abduction that threatened a tenuous Mideast cease-fire.

Eliyahu Goral, 61, was rescued hours after a Palestinian group claimed responsibility for the fatal stabbing of an Israeli sitting with his girlfriend on a seaside bench. Israel's foreign minister warned that Palestinian officials were running out of time to disarm the militants, a step Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas has refused to take.

Israel TV reported that the kidnappers were criminals who were trying to win favor with militant groups and the Palestinian Authority, but no group agreed to take the Israeli from them. The kidnappers had no affiliation with any militant group, the report said.

The military statement said the arrest of two members of the kidnappers' gang earlier in the evening made the rescue possible.

Goral had been missing since Friday night, when his taxi was found with its motor running in an Arab neighborhood of Jerusalem, and signs pointed to a kidnapping.

Israeli special forces stormed the house where Goral was held in Beitunia, a suburb of the town of Ramallah, freeing him without a struggle, Israel Radio said.

Despite the rescue, U.S.-backed peace moves remained deadlocked, with Palestinians balking at a crackdown on the militants, and Israel refusing to pull out of West Bank towns as a result.

The stalemate is bringing into question whether a 2-week-old truce that has led to a sharp decline in violence can survive.

The lull has enabled the sides to begin implementing the U.S.-backed "road map" for peace, a blueprint for ending 33 months of violence and establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza by 2005.

Release of prisoners sought

But Palestinian leaders -- and the militant groups -- warn that Israel must release the 7,000 prisoners it holds for the truce to hold. The issue does not appear in the road map, and Israeli officials say they will in any case not release militants involved in attacks that killed Israelis.

Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas -- who is seen as a moderate and is backed by the United States and Israel -- also has resisted calls to forcibly disarm the militant groups, saying he does not want to trigger a civil war and will use persuasion alone.

In a sign of Israel's growing impatience, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom warned Tuesday that if the Palestinian Authority didn't move on the issue soon, "the whole thing's going to blow up in our face."

His Palestinian counterpart, Nabil Shaath, said Tuesday that "we are committed to the cease-fire and we will make it work," adding that he saw the road map peace plan as a "winding mountain road with slippery sides and difficult bends."

"But we are going to traverse it," Shaath said during a visit to Hungary.

Since militant groups declared a cease-fire June 29, there have been sporadic attacks.

Abbas and his Cabinet ministers have condemned the attacks, and have dispatched emissaries to meet with rogue militants and bring them to heel.

In the Gaza Strip, Palestinian police collected some illegal weapons this week, sparking a warning Monday from a top leader of the Hamas militant group that attempts to disarm it would lead to a return to attacks on Israelis.

In the latest attack, a Palestinian armed with a long double-bladed dagger tried to enter a seaside restaurant in south Tel Aviv. A security guard stopped him and he stabbed the guard in the neck before fleeing.

As the attacker fled he came across 24-year-old Amir Simhon, who was sitting on a bench with his girlfriend, Shalhevet Ulkashi, police said.

The attacker tried to stab Ulkashi but Simhon grabbed her and blocked the knife with his body, suffering fatal wounds, police said. The attacker ran but was shot in the leg by a reserve army officer.

A statement posted on the Internet site of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades -- a group affiliated with Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement -- claimed responsibility for the attack. Although the truce includes Fatah, Al Aqsa is loosely organized and leaders of some branches have refused to abide by the cease-fire.

Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, wrapping up a two-day visit to to Britain on Tuesday, said he had told British Prime Minister Tony Blair that he accepted the road map and was prepared to make concessions, but he would never compromise the security of the Israeli people.

Disagreements with Israel have exacerbated a power struggle within the Palestinian Authority between Arafat and Abbas. The United States and Israel accuse Arafat of fomenting terrorism and have tried to sideline him. In April, Arafat reluctantly appointed Abbas to the new position of prime minister.

Tensions peaked last week when Arafat's allies criticized Abbas, accusing him of being soft in talks with Israel. Abbas threatened to resign unless Fatah endorsed his handling of contacts with Israel

Abbas and Arafat met Monday night and agreed that the Palestine Liberation Organization leadership, which is headed and dominated by Arafat, would be in charge of peace talks with Israel, Palestinian legislator Saeb Erekat said.

But Arafat also told Abbas that he would fully support him and his government, Erekat said.