Israel will only fully open its border crossings with Gaza if a soldier held captive in the coastal salient by Hamas is freed, its transitional prime minister told US President Barack Obama's new envoy to the region on Wednesday.
Ehud Olmert told George Mitchell, on his first visit to the region since his appointment last week, that Israel had opened its border crossings with Gaza to humanitarian aid.
But it would only fully lift its economic blockade and allow in also non-essential goods if Hamas freed Gilad Shalit, a corporal captured in a Hamas-led cross border raid at an Israeli military outpost near the strip in June 2006.
"He (Olmert) said that the crossings are now open fully to humanitarian aid," a senior adviser, Mark Regev, told DPA.
"He said that the full, regular opening of the crossings will require that Gilad Shalit be released."
The adviser noted that "between fully open to humanitarian aid and fully operational there are other stages."
Mitchell is in the region to help achieve a durable ceasefire in Gaza, as part of which Hamas is demanding a full reopening of Gaza's borders.
Israeli leaders have faced internal criticism for failing to achieve Shalit's immediate release as part of an earlier, six-month truce, which expired on December 19, one week before Israel launched its fierce, 22-day assault on Gaza to curb rocket attacks from the salient.
Under that truce, Israel also committed to gradually reopen its crossings with Gaza, which it initially did, allowing in slowly increasing amounts of non-basic goods such as cement and other raw materials.
But it reimposed its all but total closure of the strip in response to renewed rocket attacks in early November, when it allowed in only the most bare humanitarian supplies.
Since its Gaza offensive, it has opened its borders to larger amounts of humanitarian supplies.
A fragile preliminary truce is in place in the strip since Jan 18, but Mitchell is in the region as part of attempts to reach a more durable ceasefire.
This would include a cessation of hostilities, an end to weapons smuggling to Gaza and the reopening of Gaza's borders based on a 2005 agreement that included European observers being deployed at the Rafah crossing with Egypt and the south of the strip.
Mitchell called consolidating such a ceasefire in Gaza "of critical importance".
He told reporters in Jerusalem after lunching with Olmert that Obama was "committed to Israel's security and to its right to defend itself," but added the US would "sustain an active commitment" for reaching the goal of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The former US senator, who in the past helped broker the 1998 Good Friday agreement as former US president Bill Clinton's envoy to Northern Ireland, had earlier met Egyptian President Hosny Mubarak in Cairo to discuss extending and deepening the Gaza truce.
Mitchell returned to the region eight years after he wrote a report and headed a committee analysing the causes of the Israeli-Palestinian violence that erupted in late 2000 amid a deadlock in the peace negotiations.
Defence Minister Barak said on Wednesday that Israel would respond to attacks by militants, and said he had cancelled a visit to the US to follow the latest Gaza developments from up close.