Mediator in prisoner swap meets with Hamas in Gaza

AP News
Posted: Dec 23, 2009 9:58 AM

A German mediator met with Hamas in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday to deliver Israel's latest counter offer for a prisoner swap, but the Islamic militant group's Syrian-based leadership is expected to have the final say.

The German mediator is seeking to clinch a long-anticipated swap of some 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for a single Israeli soldier.

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum confirmed the mediator delivered the offer and said Hamas was considering it.

"We in Hamas are discussing this issue among our leadership, and when we finish, we will give our answer through the German mediator," he said, without indicating when the group would respond.

A deal to exchange 23-year-old Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit for the Palestinian prisoners appeared imminent earlier this week when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his top ministers convened for a series of meetings described as crucial.

Israel and the Iranian-backed Hamas movement have held multiple rounds of swap talks, most mediated by Egypt, ever since militants affiliated with the Islamic group dragged a bleeding Schalit into Gaza after a cross-border raid in June 2006. The raid also killed two other soldiers. The talks have led to repeated false alarms that a deal was nearly completed.

Momentum picked up in recent months with the introduction of a German mediator into the negotiations. Israel has been reluctant to meet Hamas' demand to release dozens of Palestinians involved in deadly attacks on Israelis _ including some of the most notorious suicide bombings of recent years. It also wants some of the prisoners deported outside the West Bank, for fear they would resume their violence against Israel, as did some Palestinians freed in previous releases.

According to a Palestinian close to the negotiations, Israel's current offer would see the release of 15 high-profile prisoners responsible for violent attacks on Israelis. Hamas insists they be part of any deal. The source spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks.

The parties still disagree on about 100 of the prisoners, and Hamas seeks to limit the number of prisoners to be deported, the source said.

There was no official comment from Israel on the sticking points of the negotiations.

The emerging prisoner swap is stirring up emotions on both sides of the decades-old conflict.

In Israel, where most citizens perform military service, many have been swept up by the soldier's plight in captivity. But others feel releasing prisoners convicted of violence could encourage militants to take more hostages.

For the Palestinians, the release of hundreds of men, women and teenagers would be a major victory. Most Palestinian families have had relatives in Israeli jails at one time or another, and the prisoners have come to achieve near-iconic status in Palestinian society.

But Hamas has proven resistant to compromise in the past, and may refuse to give up the soldier, its only bargaining chip, if offered less than it demands.