GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip—With Israeli tanks poised to rescue an Israeli soldier whom Hamas militants are holding somewhere in the Gaza Strip, Palestinian leaders agreed Tuesday on a plan that would curb attacks on Israel and perhaps clear the way for a unity government between Hamas and its Fatah party rival.
But the agreement, which accepts the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, fell short of meeting international demands that Hamas explicitly recognize Israel and renounce violence.
Israeli leaders criticized the Palestinians for spending their time on internal problems instead of focusing on ending the escalating crisis created by the kidnapping Sunday of the Israeli soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, 19.
"There was a lot of double talk today, and what was needed was very tangible action on Corporal Shalit," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israel's Foreign Ministry. "If he is not released, then we will have to act to secure his release."
Early Wednesday, Israeli aircraft bombed a bridge in central Gaza in what could be the first step in a wider military operation to free the soldier. But the Israeli military said no tanks were immediately moving into Gaza.
Palestinians have been bracing for Israeli retaliation since Shalit was abducted during a Hamas-led commando raid that killed two other Israeli soldiers.
Israel has moved scores of tanks and hundreds of soldiers into positions along the Gaza borders. On Tuesday, Palestinian militants built towering barriers of dirt and concrete along roads in northern Gaza to slow any invasion.
Egypt, whose diplomats have been working to defuse the crisis, dispatched more than 1,000 troops to its border with Gaza in case Palestinians tried to flee.
There appeared to be no progress Tuesday on winning Shalit's release. Hamas militants who are thought to be holding Shalit are demanding that Israel release about 400 Palestinian prisoners—100 women and 300 Palestinians younger than 18—in exchange for information about the soldier.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has rejected any talk of a prisoner exchange and warned that he won't wait much longer before using the military to free Shalit. A rescue operation could be risky: The last time Israel tried to free a soldier whom Hamas militants had kidnapped, in 1994, the captive was killed in the assault.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged Israel not to take any rash steps.
"There really needs to be an effort now to try and calm the situation, not let the situation escalate, and give diplomacy a chance to work to try to get this release," Rice said during a diplomatic trip to Pakistan.
As pressure built in the Gaza Strip, there were signs of another possible crisis brewing in the predominantly Palestinian West Bank. The Popular Resistance Committees, one of the groups that led Sunday's attack, claimed that it was holding an Israeli settler.
The Israeli military said Eliyahu Asheri, an 18-year-old West Bank settler, had been missing since Sunday, but it couldn't confirm that he'd been kidnapped.
The deal between Fatah and Hamas was announced at a hastily called news conference in Gaza City.
The outgrowth of a political platform that Palestinian prisoners from Hamas, Fatah and other leading factions put forward, the agreement calls for establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, with East Jerusalem as its capital. It also calls for ending attacks inside the 1967 borders of Israel.
Some said the deal was an implicit recognition of Israel's right to exist alongside a new Palestinian state. Hamas lawmaker Ziad Dayeh told the British Broadcasting Corp. that the group was "recognizing the existence of Israel without recognizing the legitimacy of Israel."
Comments from other leading Hamas figures suggested otherwise. Khalid Abu Hilal, a senior Hamas leader, said Hamas would accept an Israeli nation if the United States wanted to cede part of its land to create a Jewish nation in North America.
"Our principles and statements are clear," he said. "We will never recognize Israel. We will recognize Israel only if it is far away."
Hilal also made clear that the language curbing attacks in Israel didn't mean an end to such assaults: "We are still able to resist in other areas."
In Washington, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli refused to say whether the Palestinian proposal represented progress. He said the Bush administration was in contact with the Palestinian Authority presidency, the Israeli government, the Egyptians and others to try to get Shalit released, but was refusing to talk directly to Hamas, which the United States considers a terrorist group.
While the deal might do little to end the international isolation that's hobbled the Palestinians since they installed Hamas as the ruling political party in January, it could ease some of the Hamas-Fatah fighting, which has claimed dozens of lives and raised the once-unthinkable specter of a Palestinian civil war.
If Abbas accepts the deal, as expected, it would end his threat to put the issue before voters next month in a referendum that could create even greater internal friction.
"I don't want to paint a romantic picture, but signing this document is a significant step in ending the crisis we are in now," said Fatah leader Samir al Masharawi, who helped work on the deal.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099):
Need to map