GAZA CITY (AFP) – The Islamist Hamas movement on Tuesday said the release of an Israeli soldier captured in 2006 would not be part of a proposed Gaza truce, despite Israeli demands for progress on the issue.
“Whoever thinks that the Shalit issue will be settled for free as part of the period of calm is completely wrong,” senior Hamas leader Mahmud Zahar said in a speech in Gaza City, referring to the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
“The issue of a prisoner exchange is completely separate from the period of calm,” he added, speaking at an event to remember the Naqba, the Arabic word for catastrophe used to describe the creation of Israel in 1948.
Israel has demanded that progress on the release of Shalit, who was captured by Gaza militants in June 2006, be included in an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire proposal backed by 12 major Palestinian factions including Hamas.
Shalit was captured by militants from the Gaza Strip in a deadly cross-border raid into Israel and is being held by Hamas, which has demanded an exchange involving hundreds of Palestinian prisoners.
“If there were another way to free these prisoners we would welcome it,” Zahar said, referring to the more than 11,000 Palestinians held in Israeli jails.
Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, who has been mediating the talks, on Monday presented the proposed ceasefire to Israel on a visit to Jerusalem in a bid to end the near daily clashes between Gaza militants and Israeli troops.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert asked Suleiman to tell Gaza militants any truce would be conditional upon progress being made towards freeing Shalit and a halt to arms smuggling from Egypt’s Sinai peninsula.
Meanwhile Palestinian militants continued launching rockets at Israel on Monday, hitting a house near the border and killing a 70-year-old woman — the 15th Israeli to be killed by the rockets since 2000.
The attacks were claimed by the Islamic Jihad movement, which has refused to sign the proposed ceasefire but had vowed not to violate its terms.
Israel has carried out near-daily raids on Gaza in a bid to halt the rocket attacks as its senior leaders have mulled a wider operation aimed at ousting Hamas, which seized control of Gaza in June.
It has also sealed the territory off from all but vital aid in a blockade that Hamas insists must be lifted as part of any truce agreement.