Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Prisoner Swap Deal Stalled Over One Detainee

By Saleh al Naeimi and Nazer Majli
Asharq Alawsat

Gaza, Tel Aviv, Asharq Al-Awsat- The prisoner exchange deal between Hamas and Israel hinges upon one prisoner that Hamas insists is added to the hundreds of other Palestinian prisoners who will be released in exchange for the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, Asharq Al Awsat has learned. Reliable sources also informed Asharq Al-Awsat that the German mediator is currently exerting considerable effort to achieve a breakthrough on this issue with both the Israeli and Hamas delegation present in Cairo. The source confirmed that he expects the conclusion of these negotiations – which first began two years ago – to be announced within the next two days. The sources also refused to identify the prisoner who is the cause of these crucial negotiations.

Sources confirmed that the Hamas delegation is made up of senior leaders who will decide on the proposals made by the German mediator. The German mediator is meeting with the Israeli and Hamas delegations at the headquarters of Egyptian intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman.

In the first credible sign that the prisoner exchange deal may be reaching a successful conclusion, Asharq Al-Awsat learn that the Israeli Prison Service has already assembled a large number of detainees in three Israeli prisoners in order to facilitate the release process. Palestinian prisoners detained in Israeli prisons said that the Israeli authorities had on Sunday begun the process of gathering the hundreds of prisoners [set for release as part of the agreement] at the three [Israeli] prisons. Palestinian prisoners also stressed that these prisoners are optimistic [of release], and are bidding their fellow prisoners farewell.

Despite the extreme secrecy of the Hamas and Israeli representatives, all indications point to the prisoner exchange deal being concluded in no less than a week. It is also expected that Israel will release all of the [imprisoned] commanders of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigade. The Al Qassam Brigade is the military wing of Hamas, and its commanders that are imprisoned in Israel have all been convicted by Israeli courts in the deaths of hundreds of Israeli soldiers and citizens during the Second Intifada.

Ibrahim Hamad, the commander of the Al Qassam Brigade in the West Bank is expected to be among the Hamas prisoners set to be released. Israel has accused him of ordering suicide bombings in Israel and West Bank that resulted in the deaths of dozens of Israeli soldiers and settlers.

The prisoner exchange deal is also expected to include the release of Abbas al-Sayed, the commander of the Al Qassam Brigade in Tulkarm, who is currently serving a life sentence after being convicted of planning the March 2002 Netanya Park Hotel suicide bombing, which resulted in the death of 30 Israeli citizens. This terrorist operation led to the Israeli army occupying the West Bank and imposing a blockade on late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat.

It is also widely expected that the Israeli – Hamas prisoner exchange will include the release of Abdullah Barghouti, who is serving life imprisonment after being convicted of manufacturing explosive devices that have been used in a number of operations against Israel.

On the other hand, while informed Israel sources confirmed the news about the possibility of the prisoner exchange deal being concluded, they said that this is unlikely to take place before the Islamic religious festival of Eid [27 November]. The Israeli sources said that this deal would most likely be concluded shortly after Eid as there are still a number of issues that must first be finalized, including legal issues, and [Israeli] internal political affairs.

Israel has issued strict instructions for silence to all those involved in the negotiations with Hamas amidst an intensifying split in public opinion between those who support the prisoner exchange deal and those who oppose. Haifa University published on Monday a poll revealing that 62 percent of Israelis support the deal. Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fears that should this deal be presented for vote to his government it will be rejected as the majority of the ministers oppose it. He is therefore looking for legal ways to take this decision unilaterally.

Noam Shalit, father of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, visited the Israeli Ministry of Defense on Monday in order to meet with Hagai Hadas, the Israeli negotiator who is dealing with the prisoner exchange negotiations, in order to hear the latest developments. Following this, Noam Shalit visited the Knesset, to meet with government ministers and attempt to persuade them to vote for the deal, should it be put before them.

An Israeli source also revealed that the progress on the prisoner exchange deal included Hamas reversing their decision on the release of 70 prisoners that Israel refused to accept, instead nominating 70 alternatives. Hamas also went back on their demand regarding the release of Israeli-Arab prisoners, with only a token number of them being agreed for release [by Israel].

In addition to this, Asharq Al-Awsat learnt that effort is being exerted to include the prisoner exchange deal with a broader comprehensive deal that includes a truce between Israel and resistance factions in the Gaza Strip [including Hamas] and the border crossings between the Gaza Strip and Israel being reopened. Informed sources revealed that Amos Gilad, the Director of Policy and Political-Military Affairs at the Israeli Ministry of Defense is in contact with Egyptian Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman on this issue.

The sources also said that it is unlikely that the recent announcement by Hamas Interior Minister Fathi Hamad on the agreement to cease rocket fire into Israel came within the frameworks of the comprehensive deal. It is worth mentioning that while this agreement bans any acts of resistance against Israeli with regards to rocket fire, this agreement does not include retaliatory attacks in response to Israeli attacks or invasion.

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