Hamas blames Israel as prisoner talks drag on

Hamas blamed Israel on Tuesday for stalling efforts to swap hundreds of Palestinian prisoners for a captured soldier after the Jewish state reportedly expressed reservations over the Islamists’ latest offer.

The two sides had appeared to be close to reaching a deal, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holding five meetings in less than 48 hours with six top ministers before passing an offer to Hamas via a German mediator.

Local media said that in its reply, Israel balked at allowing some of the released Palestinian prisoners to return to their homes in the occupied West Bank, insisting that they instead go to Hamas-run Gaza or third countries.

“Israel reported favourably to the general outline presented by the German mediator,” the Ynet news website said. “Part of the reservations are the names of the heavyweight prisoners that Israel demands be deported.”

Defence Minister Ehud Barak said that the government was “toiling intensively on finding the right way to make headway on the issue of Gilad” Shalit, seized by Gaza militants in a deadly cross-border raid in June 2006.

“The Israeli government ... sees it as our highest duty to return Gilad home, but not at any price,” he said.

But Hamas spokesperson Sami Abu Zuhri insisted those high-level talks merely showed Israeli divisions were behind the delay in reaching a deal to release the 23-year-old Shalit.

“The scene that took place yesterday inside the Israeli government is proof that Israel is responsible for hindering and delaying the prisoner exchange agreement,” Abu Zuhri said.

Following the marathon meetings, the premier’s office said only that the ministers instructed the negotiators to continue the talks.

According to Israeli and Palestinian officials, Israel would free 450 militants, including many involved in deadly attacks, in exchange for Shalit.
An additional 500 prisoners would be released at a later stage.

There are currently about 8 000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

Abu Zuhri said Hamas had not “closed the door on the negotiations” but that it would adhere to its conditions, which are believed to include the release of several top commanders responsible for the deaths of scores of Israelis.

Shalit’s parents, who have made impassioned pleas for ministers to agree to a deal so that their son can be released after three years in captivity, were laconic following Israel’s latest move.

“The process continues,” said Noam Shalit by telephone.

In Gaza meanwhile, the Palestinian relatives of prisoners have been eagerly following the talks, hoping their loved ones are included in any deal.

“I did not sleep all night and I no longer know what’s true and what isn’t,” said Ghalia Barud (75) whose son Ibrahim has been in jail for 24 years but may not be on the list because he is due to be released in three years.

“I am always calling the mothers of other prisoners for any news about the names of prisoners in the deal, but no one knows anything.”

Germany, which has a history of mediating successful prisoner exchanges between Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia, dispatched a mediator to join the talks earlier this year after months of unsuccessful Egyptian mediation.

Both Israel and Hamas have imposed censorship on comments on the negotiations over Shalit, who has become a cause célèbre in the Jewish state.

But there is also strong opposition within the country to releasing people convicted of some of the deadliest suicide bombings ever carried out in Israel.

According to a poll released on Tuesday, 52% of Israelis think the country should pay almost any price to return prisoners since it is the moral obligation of the state that sent them to war.

But 32% oppose freeing people who killed Israelis in “terrorist attacks” inside the Jewish since this will encourage such acts and more kidnappings.

Hamas and two smaller Palestinian militant groups captured Shalit in June 2006 when they tunneled into Israel out of Gaza and attacked an army post, killing two soldiers. - AFP

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