Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Israel considering prisoner exchange for soldier

Israel's Security Cabinet opened debate Wednesday on a possible prisoner exchange with Hamas that could trade hundreds of Palestinian prisoners for a soldier captured in June 2007.

But a minister participating in the talks said it was unlikely there would be a firm decision on the exact terms of a deal or which prisoners could be released. Social Welfare chief Isaac Hertzog told Army Radio he believed hopes had been raised "a little too high" ahead of the meeting.

"As I understand it, it is a process," he said, adding that the same applied to talks on prospects for a long-term truce in Gaza, which are also on the agenda. "We shall examine what is the current status of the truce and the intensive efforts to free Gilad Shalit, where things stand and what are the parameters."

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert repeated his new condition that Sgt. Gilad Shalit must be freed.

"We will negotiate his release first and only then will we be willing to discuss things like the Gaza crossings and rebuilding" the Gaza Strip, Olmert said during a tour of Jerusalem.

Israel and Egypt clamped a blockade on Gaza after Hamas overran the crowded sliver of territory in 2007, allowing in only humanitarian supplies.

In Damascus, exiled Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal complained about Olmert's new condition.

"There can be no truce unless the blockade is lifted and the crossings are opened. The truce issue should not be linked to the issue of prisoner Schalit," Mashaal told reporters in Damascus after meeting with Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa.

Olmert indicated that negotiations might take weeks. His term will end soon, when a new prime minister takes over. "Even if Shalit's case cannot be resolved while I am in office, the foundations we built will facilitate in his release," he said.

Last week's Israeli election ended inconclusively. Israel's president will start consultations with political parties Wednesday, beginning a period of up to seven weeks toward formation of a new government.

At stake in the truce talks is stabilizing the area after Israel's punishing offensive in Gaza last month, aimed at Hamas militants who took part in or allowed daily rocket fire at Israel. The offensive left about 1,300 Palestinians dead, at least half of them civilians, according to Gaza health officials. Thirteen Israelis were killed.

Since the fighting ended Jan. 18 when Hamas and Israel independently declared a truce, there has been sporadic rocket fire from Gaza, triggering Israeli airstrikes aimed at smuggling tunnels and Hamas outposts.

Early on Wednesday, Israeli aircraft struck smuggling tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border and a disused Hamas security base near the town of Khan Younis, local Palestinian security officials said.

They said the Hamas base had already been largely reduced to rubble in previous air attacks since the Jan. 18 end of Israel's land campaign in the strip, but this time a mosque left standing inside the compound was destroyed. There were no reports of casualties.

The Israeli military said aircraft hit seven tunnels and the Khan Younis base in response to the Palestinians firing 45 rockets and mortar shells since the Jan. 18 cease-fire.

Later in the morning a rocket fired from Gaza fell in open ground in southern Israel, police said. There were no reported casualties.

On Tuesday, the United Nations said five tons of unexploded Israeli bombs kept under Hamas guard in Gaza have been stolen. "It's clearly extremely dangerous and needs to be disposed of in a safe manner," U.N. spokesman Richard Miron said. The Israeli military blamed Hamas for the theft. Hamas officials in Gaza contacted by the AP said they had no knowledge of the matter.

Egypt has been mediating the truce talks, because Hamas and Israel refuse to deal with each other directly.

Hamas does not recognize Israel. Many of its leaders stick to the group's ideology calling for destruction of the Jewish state, but some say they would accept a Palestinian state next to Israel.

Israel, the U.S. and the European Union list Hamas as a terror organization because it has sent dozens of suicide bombers into Israel, killing hundreds.

The main issues in the truce talks will be discussed at the Wednesday's meeting, Regev said.

Hamas wants hundreds of Palestinian prisoners released in exchange for Schalit, the soldier captured in a cross-border raid. Some prisoners were convicted of participating in or planning some of the bloodiest Palestinian attacks against Israel.

Israel has had a policy of not freeing prisoners directly involved in deadly attacks, but the principle has been eroded in recent years.

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