Missing Israeli Feared Kidnapped

mideast peace talks/roadmap graphic
AP
A massive search is underway in northern Israel for a soldier who disappeared while hitching a ride home from his base.

Police fear he's been kidnapped by Palestinian terrorists, reports CBS News Correspondent Robert Berger. In spite of the truce, Islamic militant groups have threatened to kidnap soldiers to press their demand for the release of thousands of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. So far, no Palestinian groups have claimed responsibility or made demands.

Oleg Shaichat, 20, was in uniform and armed when he was last seen Monday by a fellow hitchhiker traveling in a car near the biblical village of Cana in the Galilee, on his way to his home in a nearby Jewish satellite of Nazareth, Israel's largest Arab city.

Since then, relatives say, they have heard nothing from him and his cell phone is turned off.

"It's possible he was kidnapped, or worse," regional police chief David Ziso told Israeli army radio, adding that hundreds of soldiers and some civilian volunteers had joined police in a search of the area, backed by helicopters.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is stepping up pressure on Israel to halt construction of a security wall along the border with the West Bank, in advance of Friday's White House meeting between President Bush and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.

The U.S. has told Israel that it opposes the security barrier because Israel is unilaterally drawing a border.

Former Israeli general Uzi Dayan said the fence is necessary to keep Palestinian suicide bombers out.

"This is self defense, and this is an effective self-defense," he said. "This is why we have to do it to protect our people."

The Palestinians say the fence turns the West Bank into a prison.

After his own White House meeting Thursday with Vice President Dick Cheney, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom had his own agenda for the U.S.

"I think the Americans and the whole international community should ask and demand the Palestinian leadership and Prime Minister Abbas…dismantle the infrastructure of the terrorist organizations, to confiscate its illegal weapons and to stop the incitement," he said. "They should do it, otherwise, groups among those extremists will decide when to put an end to the peace process, and we are not willing to give them this opportunity."

Also Thursday, a surprising new poll shows that many Jewish settlers in the West Bank are prepared for territorial compromise with the Palestinians, even if it costs them their homes.

The dovish Israeli group Peace Now conducted a poll showing that 74 percent of Jewish settlers would give up their homes in return for compensation.

Pollster Yitzhak Chanel said the settlers have become more realistic.

"They don't like very much the idea of withdrawal and dismantling the settlements, but they will obey the law," he said.

The Jewish settlement council said the poll has no basis in reality because Peace Now is a special interest group that opposes the settlements.

The missing soldier, Shaichat, was last seen about 15 miles from the West Bank.

The Israeli military recently restated a long-standing order forbidding soldiers from hitching rides with strangers following the July 11 abduction of an Israeli taxi-driver by Palestinians. The cabbie was later freed by Israeli commandos.

Israeli and Palestinian officials later said that the kidnappers operated independently of main militant groups.

Shaichat's family, friends and army comrades said he was not the sort to go absent without leave or not stay in touch with home, according to Israeli media reports.

"He's the type to call home every 10 minutes to tell his mother where his is," his cousin George was quoted as saying by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

Shaichat's brother Adam made an emotional plea on another Israeli radio station.

"Oleg, if you can hear me…I'm asking you to get in touch with us so we know you're safe and sound and that everything is O.K. with you," he said on Israel Radio.

Despite the army ban, Ziso said Shaichat was in the habit of hitching from his base near the border with Lebanon to a junction near Cana, where scripture says Jesus turned water into wine.

From there, Shaichat would make his way through Arab villages to his home in Upper Nazareth, Ziso said.