Dispute between Israel and Hamas delays release of Shalit

Talks to secure freedom of soldier seized two-and-a-half years ago hit stumbling block
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Mediators seeking a prisoner exchange for the release of the captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit are trying to close the gap between Hamas and Israel over whether high-profile convicted Palestinian militants should be exiled upon their release.

A bout of fresh media speculation in Israel about the possible release has been triggered by an intensive series of meetings of the security cabinet to discuss terms for the freeing of Sgt Shalit, who was seized by Gaza militants three-and-a-half years ago.

Reuters quoted a Hamas source in Gaza as saying that a German mediator had postponed a planned visit to the territory to give Israel's latest response to the Islamic faction's demands until today. The source said that Israel now wanted to modify the response it had agreed the previous night, although Israeli officials yesterday gave no confirmation of this.

Israel has already formally notified the Supreme Court that it is contemplating the release of 980 prisoners in return for the freeing of Sgt Shalit – 450 predominantly Hamas prisoners first, and then a further 530 chosen by Israel itself. There are about 11,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

But one major sticking point is the issue of whether some prominent Hamas militants "with blood on their hands" would be allowed back to the West Bank, or be sent to Gaza or further afield. Israeli sources confirmed that intelligence services remained highly concerned about the prospect of such prisoners posing a fresh security threat once out of jail.

Ehud Barak, Israel's Defence Minister and a key figure in the current talks, said yesterday that Sgt Shalit's return home after more than three years in captivity in the Gaza Strip was Israel's priority. However, he told reporters that Israel was not prepared to pay "any price" for the soldier's freedom. Some Israeli media outlets reported that negotiators were trying to persuade both Hamas and Israel to modify their positions in an effort to reach a compromise.

Sgt Shalit, 23, was captured by militants who tunnelled across the border into Israel in 2006. Since then his case has become a cause célèbre in Israel. But the country is divided over whether a prisoner release on this scale would be too high a price to pay.

Israel has also been reportedly reluctant to agree to demands for the release of two particularly high-profile non-Hamas prisoners.

One is Marwan Barghouti, the Fatah leader convicted for a series of terrorist offences during the second intifada and viewed by some as a possible future Palestinian president. The other is Ahmed Saadat, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine leader convicted of the assassination of the right-wing Israeli minister Rehavam Ze'evi.

Despite the flurry of expectation in Israel and Gaza that an exchange could be imminent, one senior Israeli official urged caution yesterday. Any deal agreed by the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and his seven-member security cabinet would have to be put to the full cabinet. There would then be a 48-hour period to allow members of the public, including those bereaved by militant attacks, to petition against any release.

Sgt Shalit's parents, Noam and Aviva, have been active in the last few days – and long before – lobbying ministers and others to sanction the deal for their son's release. After the family returned home to the north of Israel from Jerusalem on Monday, a member of the campaign for Sgt Shalit's release said that Mr Netanyahu's instructions to continue negotiations "indicates progress. The family and the campaign still hope the Prime Minister will make the decision to see Gilad Shalit freed as soon as possible."

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