Friday, July 07, 2006

Israel may release prisoners if Shalit is freed

By Amos Harel, Yuval Azoulay, Avi Issacharoff, Aluf Benn and Mijal Grinberg, Haaretz Correspondents

Public Security Minister Avi Dichter suggested Friday that Israel might release Palestinian prisoners as part of an Egyptian proposal to win freedom for abducted Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit.

Dichter said that once Shalit is released and militants stop rocket attacks from Gaza, "then, in a goodwill gesture, Israel, as it has in the past, knows how to free prisoners."

Dichter's comments were relayed by his spokesman, Ofer Lefler.

Hamas sources said Thursday that the group would agree to release the Shalit and stop firing Qassam rockets at Israel in exchange for the release of all female Palestinian prisoners and about 30 prisoners who have been in Israeli jails for more than 20 years.

Also Thursday, Shalit's father called on Israel to free Palestinian security prisoners jailed in Israel in exchange for the release of his son.

This was the first time Noam Shalit has publicly voiced support for a prisoner exchange, a demand Hamas has been making on Israel since the soldier was captured.

The Hamas sources said that organization will also demand that Israel withdraw its forces from the areas of Gaza that it occupied during the past week, release the Palestinian lawmakers that it arrested and end its policy of targeted assassinations.

The sources confirmed Thursday's report about this offer in the London-based newspaper Al-Hayat, as well as Hamas' withdrawal of its previous demand for the release of thousands of Palestinian prisoners in return for Shalit.

Israel has tentatively agreed to the offer, the newspaper claimed, but has yet discussed when or how many prisoners it would release.

Jibril Rajoub, the Palestinian Authority's former national security adviser, told Haaretz on Wednesday that the Damascus-based Hamas leader Khaled Meshal would agree to such a deal. Senior Hamas officials who spoke to the media Thursday emphasized that their organization was flexible in regard to a deal to release Shalit.

Ahmet Davudoglu, an adviser to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, met earlier this week with Meshal, who told him that Hamas was prepared to be extremely flexible if Israel was willing to release some of its Palestinian prisoners. However, Meshal also warned that Hamas was prepared for a confrontation with the IDF in Gaza.

Al-Hayat reported that Davudoglu was sent to Damascus at the request of the United States. The paper also said that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia had spoken to Syrian President Bashar Assad about ways to end the crisis over Shalit.

Moussa Abu Marzuk, Meshal's deputy in Damascus, said Thursday day that Shalit could not be released without some quid pro quo from Israel. He said that 380 Palestinians under the age of 18 and about 120 Palestinian women are being held in Israeli prisons. According to Israel Prison Service figures, however, only 95 Palestinian women are being held. Abu Marzuk did not explicitly state that Shalit would returned if Israel releases these prisoners, but explained that if Israel wants to solve the problem, diplomatic means must be used.

Palestinian sources attributed the apparent softening in Hamas' position to fears that a long-term IDF operation could lead to public criticism of the abduction and shorten the lifespan of the Hamas government.

Shalit's father: My son's freedom will come at a price
"I know releasing prisoners was on the agenda before the incident, as a kind of gesture, so there is no reason for it not to be on the agenda also after the incident, for the good of releasing a soldier who was sent by the state to the front lines," said the father of the abducted soldier Thursday.

"In the end, it will be necessary to pay a price for Gilad's freedom. I don't understand why the government is delaying negotiations on this price," Noam Shalit added.

Shalit also said he wanted to meet his son's captors.

Members of the security cabinet discussed the kidnapping crisis in a meeting on Wednesday.

The cabinet was told Israel does not know where abducted Shalit is being held, but that he is alive, is in the Gaza Strip, and his kidnappers are treating him satisfactorily.

The IDF main goals remain to find Shalit, kidnapped by Palestinian militants last week, and to prevent rocket fire on Israeli towns and cities, said an official statement from the Prime Minister's Office issued after the meeting.

Israel has repeatedly refused to negotiate with the militants holding Shalit, abducted from an Israel Defense Forces post near the Gaza border 10 days ago.

"There will be steps taken and they will be very serious," said Cabinet Minister Isaac Herzog, who refused to elaborate on the military's plans.

"There is a very broad operation here. It will continue."

Israel's objectives in the operation were defined during the meeting as targeting Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank, in particular hitting "institutions and infrastructure facilitating terrorism" and restricting the movements of terrorists by tightening the division of the Gaza Strip by IDF ground forces.

"In light of the abduction [of Shalit] and continued rocket fire, including the Qassam strike on Ashkelon, we must prepare in order to bring about a change in the rules of the game, and in our dealings with the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, based on the parameters presented by the defense establishment," the statement said.

The cabinet also decided that Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni will continue spearheading diplomatic efforts to pressure the Syrian leadership into working toward Shalit's release. Damascus plays host to exiled Hamas political leader Khaled Meshal.

In the statement, Israel emphasized that it would exercise every caution to avoid harming civilians who are not engaged in terror activity, and said that all humanitarian needs would be provided for immediately.

Last week, three Palestinian organizations claimed joint responsibility for Shalit's abduction: the military wing of Hamas, the Popular Resistance Committees and an unknown group calling itself the "Army of Islam."

Palestinian sources now say that the military wing of Hamas was apparently the main organization responsible.

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