JERUSALEM (AP) – An Egyptian mediator will tell Israeli leaders on Wednesday that Hamas demands the release of 1,400 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for a soldier Gaza militants seized in June, Palestinian officials said.
Cpl. Gilad Shalit’s capture by Hamas-linked militants touched off a convulsion of violence that engulfed the Gaza Strip for five months before a shaky truce took effect on Sunday. Israel and moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas hope a prisoner swap would build on the truce to help lead the sides back to the negotiating table.
The U.S. hopes to add its weight to these efforts in a meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Abbas in the West Bank on Thursday.
Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman met in Israel on Wednesday with Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz and was to meet later in the day with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in the hope of advancing a prisoner exchange. But Israeli security and government officials have said the sides were far from a deal. Peretz welcomed Suleiman ahead of the talks, calling him an influential player in the Middle East. “I have no doubt that his presence today in this situation is significant. It has significance right now and it will also be significant in the future,” Peretz said.
Israeli officials said the talks with Suleiman would focus on arms smuggling from Egypt into Gaza, which is supposed to stop under the truce deal. Israeli military officials are skeptical the smuggling will stop.
Palestinian militants want Israel to free the 1,400 prisoners, including 400 women and minors, in three phases, said Abu Mujahed, a spokesman for the Hamas-affiliated Palestinian Resistance Committees, one of three groups involved in Shalit’s capture. The factions have not yet presented the Egyptians with a list of prisoners they want released, he added.
“Until now, there is no agreement with the Israelis on a prisoner exchange or on the timing,” Abu Mujahed said. But Kadoura Fares, a former Fatah legislator, said he received personal assurances from Hamas’ political chief, Khaled Mashaal, that Palestinian uprising leader Marwan Barghouti would be part of any swap. Barghouti, a West Bank Fatah leader, is serving five life sentences for his involvement in attacks on Israelis.
In all, Israel holds more than 9,000 Palestinian prisoners in its jails.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who earlier this week appealed to the Palestinians to resume peace talks, has said Israel would not hand over any prisoners to Hamas, but wants the deal done with Abbas.
Israel, the U.S. and Western Europe have refused to recognize the Hamas-led government, which took office in March. They have slapped debilitating economic sanctions on it, demanding it recognize Israel, renounce violence and accept existing peace deals. Hamas has rejected the demands, even though the boycott has nearly bankrupted its government and made it largely impossible for it to pay civil servants who provide for one-third of the Palestinians.
This week’s cease-fire, though, has boosted hopes of renewing long-stalled peace talks between Olmert and Abbas. The Palestinian president will be discussing peacemaking prospects in his talks Thursday with Rice, who will be accompanying U.S. President George W. Bush on his trip to neighboring Jordan.
The United States was the main engine behind the phased “road map” peace plan, which calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. The plan foundered shortly after it was presented in 2003, with both sides failing to live up to their initial obligations.