Israel, Hamas wary on talk prisoner swap imminent

Wed Nov 18, 2009 10:31am EST

GAZA (Reuters) – Israel and Hamas reacted cautiously on Wednesday to reports a deal to exchange hundreds of Palestinian prisoners for an Israeli soldier held in the Gaza Strip might be concluded by the end of this month.

Sources on both sides told Reuters there were hopes that a deal, which would commence a process of exchange lasting some weeks, might be struck by the end of next week, when the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha begins.

But they cautioned there was no certainty the complex bargain would be finalized.

The U.S.-funded Arabic television channel Al-Hurra quoted unidentified sources as saying a German and Egyptian-mediated agreement to exchange captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit for Palestinians held in Israeli jails would be clinched by Eid.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office put out a statement following the report which said negotiators were working “through all channels” to recover Shalit, who was captured in a raid on an Israeli post near the border in 2006.

It added: “Efforts are continuing all the time. Just as we have done throughout recent months, we have no intention of responding this time to foreign media reports on the matter.”

A Palestinian official close to the negotiations also was cautious about when there might be a successful conclusion.

“The talks are going on almost daily,” he said.

“The German mediator is active and is conducting most of the talks with Hamas officials in Gaza … There is progress and there are obstacles, but the obstacles have not wrecked the talks.”

German and Egyptian officials declined comment.

Another Palestinian official in Gaza said outstanding issues included the fate of Palestinian prisoners from towns that lie inside Israel itself, rather than the West Bank or Gaza Strip.

VIDEO PROOF

On October 2, Israel freed 20 Palestinian women in return for a “proof-of-life” video showing the 23-year-old Shalit.

Sources close to the negotiations have said Hamas, in the first part of a deal, would hand over Shalit to Egypt and Israel would release some 350 to 450 prisoners, some of whom would go into exile abroad rather than return to the West Bank or Gaza.

More prisoners would be released when Shalit was transferred from Egypt to Israel, while other prisoner releases could take several more weeks to complete.

Islamist Hamas, which seized control in Gaza from the Western-backed Palestinian Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas in 2007, is locked in conflict with Israel, which removed troops and settlers from the coastal enclave in 2005 but maintains a blockade on the territory, where 1.5 million Palestinians live.

A three-week offensive in Gaza in December and January, which Israel said was in response to Hamas rocket fire, killed more than 1,400 Palestinians. Thirteen Israelis were also killed.

Last month’s prisoners-for-video exchange was seen by some as a boost for Hamas in its quest for international legitimacy as ruler of Gaza — and hence a blow to Abbas, whose authority has been undermined by his loss of power in the enclave.

[original]

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