Israel, Hamas prisoner-swap talks sink

Eleventh-hour talks on a Israel-Hamas prisoner swap appeared to collapse on Tuesday as both sides accused each other of about-turns and bad faith in their Egyptian-brokered negotiations.

Cairo has been hosting talks aimed at securing the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, seized by Gaza militants in June 2006, in exchange for the freeing of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners.

For Israel, the issue has gained in urgency as outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert hopes to strike a deal before he steps down and hawkish Benjamin Netanyahu — whose Cabinet is likely to assume a hardline stand — takes over.

Olmert on Tuesday accused the Gaza Strip’s Hamas rulers of hardening their stance in the negotiations.

”It became clear during the discussions that Hamas had hardened its position, reneged on understandings that had been formulated over the past year and raised extreme demands,” Olmert’s office said after two envoys returned from talks in Cairo.

Hamas’s stance comes ”despite the generous proposals that had been raised in this round in order to advance and exhaust the negotiations and bring about the soldier’s release,” it said.

The Israeli Cabinet was to convene on Tuesday to hear the two envoys’ report, with army chief of staff Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi cutting short a trip to the United States to attend.

”Unfortunately this government will not be able to … bring Shalit home,” Trade and Industry Minister Eli Yishai said ahead of the meeting.

Hamas furiously rejected the Israeli accusations, saying the envoys had offered nothing new.

”As soon as there is a serious offer from Israel, we will deal with it,” Ossama Hamdan, the Hamas representative in Beirut, said in a statement published on the Islamists’ website.

”Israel thinks that Hamas will accept less than the bare minimum under pressure that the next Israeli government … risks being less disposed to proceed with an exchange.”

The Israeli media has speculated that the Islamists are seeking to capitalise on Olmert’s wish to have Shalit freed before he leaves office and on the mounting pressure on the government from the serviceman’s family.

With their son’s time in captivity approaching 1 000 days on Saturday, the Shalits have moved into a protest tent outside Olmert’s residence in Jerusalem.

The spot has become a sort of pilgrimage site for politicians aiming to express support for the release of the soldier whose fate has become a national cause celebre.

Shalit was captured by Gaza militants including Hamas in a deadly cross-border raid at the very start of Olmert’s premiership and he is eager to close the file before he leaves office.

Last week he dispatched senior aide Ofer Dekel and internal security chief Yuval Diskin to Cairo to try to nail down a deal with Hamas.

The two were reportedly given wide latitude, including offering to release some prisoners who had been involved in attacks that had killed Israelis — something that the Jewish state normally refuses to do.

The two main disputes are how many ”hardcore” prisoners would be released for Shalit and how many would be banned from returning to their homes in the occupied West Bank, according to Israeli media.

”Hamas appears to agree to the expulsion of only five prisoners on its list, while Israel wants to send dozens abroad,” Haaretz quoted a senior Israeli official as saying.

An opinion poll released on Tuesday said the vast majority of Israelis support the release of ”terrorist-murderers” and the deportation of some of them outside Palestinian Authority territory.

Sixty-nine percent of people questioned were in favour of such a move, while 22% were opposed, according to poll by the Dahaf Polling Institute. — Sapa-AFP

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