Gaza border crossings will not be opened without release of Israeli soldier

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The Independent Online

Israel's security cabinet yesterday insisted that Gaza border crossings would not be opened without the release of the Israeli corporal Gilad Shalit-while approving in principle a prisoner exchange involving Hamas prisoners "with blood on their hands."

The ministers lined up behind outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert who insisted at the weekend that any expansion of the crossings to allow the import of more than basic humanitarian supplies would have to await the possible release of Cpl Shalit, seized by Hamas and other militants in a cross border raid in June 2006.

The move by Mr Olmert has imposed fresh strains on the delicately poised Egyptian-brokered talks about both the release of Cpl Shalit and a prospective long term ceasefire in the aftermath of Israel's 22 day military offensive in the Strip. Amos Gilad, the most senior official in the Defence Ministry, had earlier reportedly been negotiating in Cairo for a ceasefire more or less parallel with the release of Cpl Shalit.

Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak complained earlier this week that "Israel has withdrawn from its position... There was an agreement for a lull and now the Israelis are going back a bit, but we are pressing them." Hamas claimed yesterday that the Cabinet decision was a "knife in Egypt's back."

Mr Olmert yesterday summoned Defence Minister Ehud Barak and the ministry's most senior official Amos Gilad to issue a dressing down for a remarkable outburst attributed to Mr Gilad in Maariv in the wake of the Prime Minister's intervention and his implied criticism of the way Mr Barak and Mr Gilad were conducting the negotiations.

The paper quoted Mr Gilad as saying that he had kept the prime minister's office fully informed of all the negotiations and adding; "I don't understand what it is that they're trying to do. To insult the Egyptians? We've already insulted them.... It's simply madness. Egypt has remained almost our last ally here. After all, it's damaging to national security.... What are we thinking? That [the Egyptians] work for us? That they're a subordinate unit of ours?"

A release list likely to include hundreds of prisoners to be exchanged for Cpl Shalit -including ones convicted of launching lethal attacks on Israelis-- has not yet been agreed in the Egypt-brokered negotiations, and will have to be approved in full by Cabinet ministers. But none of the 11 senior ministers at yesterday's meeting voted against the principles under which it was being drawn up.

Mark Regev, Mr Olmert's spokesman, said: "The ministers understand full well the sort of price that releasing Gilad Shalit will require and I believe they are supportive." He added that Amos Gilad would be returning soon for further talks in Cairo.

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