Prisoner swap 'not a done deal'

2009-11-24 16:19

Jerusalem - Israel's prime minister tried on Tuesday to temper expectations that a deal to free an Israeli soldier held by Hamas militants was imminent.

After three years of troubled negotiations, officials in Israel and the Gaza Strip have recently reported progress toward clinching a deal to swap Sergeant Gilad Schalit for some 1 000 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons. A Hamas delegation was in Egypt on Tuesday meeting with the German official trying to finalise an agreement.

With expectations soaring, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried on Tuesday to cool things down. "There is no deal yet and there might not be one," he said.

The sides have repeatedly bickered over the names and numbers of Palestinian prisoners to be freed. While Israel has a history of agreeing to lopsided prisoner swaps with its enemies, Hamas is seeking dozens of people serving lengthy sentences for deadly attacks on Israelis.

Distorted reports

Palestinians close to the negotiations say that Israel has accepted all of Hamas' demands. But Israeli officials have not confirmed this, and Netanyahu himself has warned of "distorted" reports in the media.

Continued violence between the two sides also threatened to undercut progress. Israeli aircraft attacked a suspected weapons factory and smuggling tunnels in Gaza early on Tuesday in response to rocket fire the previous day by Palestinian militants. The rocket attack came despite Hamas' announcement over the weekend that militants had agreed to halt their fire.

The visiting German foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, refused to comment on the status of the negotiations. "I can simply express the hope that the talks will lead to a good and humane solution," he said during a stop in the West Bank.

A breakthrough would give much-needed boosts to both sides.

Netanyahu would score an important diplomatic victory at a time when much of the international community is sceptical of his commitment to peacemaking. An informal canvassing of Cabinet members suggests he has the support to push such a deal through his government.

Bruising blockade

Winning the freedom of hundreds of prisoners, meanwhile, would significantly buttress Hamas in its rivalry against West Bank-based Palestinian moderates, led by President Mahmoud Abbas. A deal could also include an easing of the bruising blockade of Gaza that Israel launched after Schalit's capture.

Schalit, captured in a cross-border raid in June 2006, is being held in Gaza by militants affiliated with the territory's Iranian-backed Hamas rulers. The long ordeal of the shy, gangly soldier and his family have touched a raw nerve in Israel, where military service is compulsory and many people say they would be willing to pay the heavy price for Schalit's freedom.

But support is not monolithic. Because many of the prisoners took part in deadly attacks, Israelis fear that at least some of them would return to violence, as happened after a similar release nearly 25 years ago.

Ron Kehrmann's 17-year-old daughter, Tal, was killed in a 2003 bus bombing. On Tuesday, he and several other bereaved parents petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court to lift the censorship the military has imposed on the emerging deal.

The price of a deal

"We want everyone to know what the price is," Kehrmann said. "The minute the names are published, I assume people will be shocked and then they can thoughtfully say whether they're for or against a deal."

The sight of hundreds of jubilant Palestinian militants, freed in exchange for a lone captured Israeli soldier, would also be hard for Rami Elhanan to see. His 14-year-old daughter, Smadar, was killed in a suicide bombing attack in Jerusalem in 1997.

But Elhanan fully supports a release.

"I can understand the pain of those who don't want to release them," said Elhanan, who belongs to a group of 500 Palestinian and Israeli families who lost loved ones in fighting but champion reconciliation.

Because so many Palestinians have had relatives held in Israeli prisons, the significance of a prisoner release is great in Palestinian society, Elhanan said.

"If we know how to use it as a leverage for dialogue, then maybe something good will come out of something evil," he said.

Israel is currently holding some 7 500 Palestinian prisoners.