Israel passes counter-demands to Hamas for prisoner swap, details could scuttle deal

By Ben Hubbard, AP
Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Israel passes demands in prisoner swap to Hamas

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Israel delivered its counter-demands Tuesday for a deal with Hamas to exchange about 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for a single Israeli soldier held captive by Gaza militants for more than three years.

As families on both sides agonized over the outcome, last-minute differences over who should be freed or sent into exile threatened to imperil the deal.

Israel insists on expelling some West Bank-born prisoners to the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip or abroad and balks at releasing some inmates high on the Hamas wish list, said a senior Hamas official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not supposed to brief reporters.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak appeared to be trying to temper expectations when he told a group of students that returning Sgt. Gilad Schalit was a “top priority” — but “not at any price,” a reference to Palestinian prisoners convicted of bloody attacks.

Israel’s Channel 10 TV broadcast its coverage of the negotiations over a headline that read, “Not Yet.” Israeli media said the deal could take days or weeks to complete.

It wasn’t clear how soon Hamas would respond.

The Hamas official said that while progress has been made, a deal is not imminent. A Hamas Web site, al-Risalah, said a German mediator would meet later Tuesday with Hamas leaders in Gaza who will “take a final and conclusive decision on what the German mediator brings from his visit to the occupied territories.”

Yet another Hamas official said that meeting would take place Wednesday.

In recent days, marathon discussions about the swap at the top level of Israel’s government conveyed a sense of urgency. However, more than three years of negotiations following the capture of the Israeli soldier have been shrouded in a fog of disinformation and spin, leading to repeated false alarms that a deal is close.

The decision on whether to accept what would be the biggest swap in years is crucial for Hamas, which wrested Gaza from Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2007.

A swap may be the militant group’s only means of easing the Israeli-Egyptian blockade that has plunged most of Gaza’s 1.5 million residents deeper into poverty and kept them from rebuilding from an Israeli military offensive a year ago. Israel has said it would not consider lifting the embargo until Schalit is freed.

A high profile prisoner release could also boost the militant group’s popularity at the expense of Abbas, who favors a peaceful solution to the conflict with Israel but has little to show for years of negotiations.

On the flip side, Hamas has proven resistant to compromise in the past, and may refuse to give up the soldier, its only bargaining chip, if offered less than it demands.

Israel wants to deport dozens of prisoners, according to a Palestinian official who said he has been briefed on the negotiations. Another Palestinian, who is close to the talks, said the German mediator arranged with six countries to take the released prisoners.

Both spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the negotiations.

Hamas has tried to lower the number of prisoners to be exiled but has shown flexibility on the issue, saying it would let individual prisoners decide whether to accept deportation.

Two officials, one in Gaza and one in the West Bank, said Israel refuses to release several prisoners high on Hamas’ wish list. There were conflicting reports about what the proposed deal would mean for Marwan Barghouti, a hugely popular Palestinian uprising leader seen by many as a potential successor to Abbas.

One official said Israel wants to exile him. Another said it refused to release him at all. Barghouti is serving multiple life sentences for involvement in fatal attacks against Israelis.

Analyst Mouin Rabbani said Hamas is feeling pressure to close a deal. “Within the Hamas leadership ranks there is a widespread view that this is now or never,” he said.

A decision would require consideration by Hamas leaders in the group’s Gaza stronghold, as well as members of the group’s exiled leadership in Syria.

Inside Israel, the proposed deal has stirred up an entirely different set of considerations and emotions.

Clinching the deal might win points for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by ending the ordeal of the soldier, Gilad Schalit.

But a large-scale release could also hurt Netanyahu’s standing among Israelis who feel releasing prisoners convicted of violence could encourage militants to take more hostages, inviting more bloodshed.

The deportation of violent militants could defuse an angry backlash in Israel.

Yossi Melman, who writes on security issues for the Israeli Haaretz daily, said the deportation of Palestinian militants after a standoff at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in 2002 set a precedent. Thirteen militants were sent to Cyprus, and 12 went on to Spain, Italy, Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Belgium.

On the other hand, many in Israel believe that a 1985 swap, in which 1,150 prisoners were allowed to return to the Palestinian territories, contributed to the outbreak of the first Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation two years later. Melman called that a “trauma.”

Barak said Israel must end the practice of lopsided prisoner exchanges. “Clearly we need a change in concept, and I hope it will be done quickly … after the Gilad Schalit issue is resolved,” he said.

Pressure on Hamas has mounted from a new direction since Egypt started building an underground iron wall to stop the rampant smuggling through hundreds of tunnels under its border with Gaza.

The tunnels provide Gazans with electronics, cement and foodstuffs not otherwise available, while Hamas is believed to use them to import weapons.

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Deputy Parliament Speaker Ahmed Bahar of Hamas pleaded with Egypt not to close the tunnels.

“Egypt knows well that the results of constructing an iron wall along the border of the Gaza Strip will bring catastrophic results and destructive dangers upon Gaza residents,” he said.


Associated Press writers Mark Lavie and Ian Deitch in Jerusalem and Albert Aji Damascus, Syria, contributed reporting.

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