GAZA CITY (AFP) – Hamas blamed Israel on Tuesday for stalling efforts to swap hundreds of Palestinian prisoners for a captured soldier after the Jewish state sent a reply to the Islamists’ most recent offer.
The two sides had appeared to be close to reaching a deal, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holding five meetings in less than 48 hours with six top ministers before passing an offer to Hamas via a German mediator.
But Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri insisted those high-level talks merely proved Israel was responsible for the delay in reaching a deal to release Staff Sergeant Gilad Shalit, 23, captured by Gaza militants in a deadly cross-border raid in 2006.
“The scene that took place yesterday inside the Israeli government is proof that Israel is responsible for hindering and delaying the prisoner exchange agreement,” Abu Zuhri told AFP.
“The division inside the Israeli government is responsible for hindering the agreement,” he added.
It was unclear what the Israeli ministers decided in the marathon meetings, with the premier’s office saying only that negotiations would continue.
“The prime minister and the ministers have given instructions to the team of negotiators on continuing efforts with a view to Gilad Shalit returning to his home safe and sound,” it said, without elaborating.
According to Israeli and Palestinian officials, Israel would free 450 militants, including many involved in deadly attacks, in exchange for Shalit. An additional 500 prisoners would be released at a later stage.
There are currently some 8,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.
Abu Zuhri said Hamas had not “closed the door on the negotiations” but that it would adhere to its conditions, which are believed to include the release of several top commanders responsible for the deaths of scores of Israelis.
The deal has painfully divided Israelis, with Shalit’s parents and dozens of activists supporting and opposing the deal holding raucous protests outside the prime minister’s office throughout the discussions, which ended early Tuesday.
Netanyahu met on Monday Shalit’s parents, who had made an impassioned plea for ministers to agree to a swap.
“We believe that the next few days are fateful for our beloved son Gilad,” Noam and Aviva Shalit wrote to the premier earlier this week. “We watch the actions of the government of Israel with deep trepidation and great hope.”
The ministers were reportedly deadlocked, with three in favour of accepting Hamas’s latest proposal, three against and Netanyahu undecided but leaning toward opposition, media reported.
The premier insists that no militants convicted of involvement in deadly attacks against Israeli civilians be allowed to return to the West Bank, and instead be deported to Gaza or a third country, an official told AFP.
Speculation has mounted over the past several weeks that a deal might be close following months of mediation by Germany, which has a history of mediating successful prisoner exchanges between Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia.
Prior to the involvement of the German mediator, Egypt had tried for months to negotiate an agreement, but with no success.
Both Israel and Hamas have imposed censorship on comments on the negotiations over Shalit, who has become a cause celebre in the Jewish state that has a history of freeing prisoners for its soldiers or their bodies.
But there is also strong opposition within the country to releasing people convicted of some of the deadliest suicide bombings ever carried out in Israel.
Hamas and two smaller Palestinian militant groups captured Shalit in June 2006 when they tunneled into Israel out of Gaza and attacked an army post, killing two soldiers.