Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Hamas - Israel Shalit Deal Stalled

Cairo, Egypt -- Israeli and Palestinian sources seem to agree on one thing: The negotiations for the release of Gilad Shalit are stuck. Israeli security sources involved in the negotiations over the abducted Israel Defense Forces soldier said no significant progress was achieved in recent weeks' talks.

The ministerial meeting Sunday to reevaluate the criteria for releasing Palestinian prisoners was meant to send Hamas a message that Israel is willing to show a certain degree of flexibility, the sources said. However, Hamas has taken an even tougher stance, the sources said.

Palestinian sources also say that negotiations are going nowhere. Hamas is not willing to resume contacts and negotiate through the Egyptian interlocutors. Hamas reportedly has refused an Egyptian demand that intense negotiations be held in Cairo, with a semi-permanent presence of Israeli and Hamas negotiators. Egyptian interlocutors would shuttle between the two negotiating teams, like Turkish diplomats are doing in the case of the indirect talks between Syria and Israel in Istanbul. Palestinian sources said Hamas is currently demanding Israel accept a list of 450 prisoners, which it delivered through the Egyptian mediators more than a year ago. Hamas has said it is not willing compromise on the names on that list.

Relations between Egypt and Hamas have been very tense in recent weeks, with Hamas claiming that Cairo is doing little to ease Israel's economic pressure on the Gaza Strip. In light of these claims, Egypt announced that it would open the Rafah crossing into Sinai for 48 hours, in order to ease civilians' plight at the start of the month of Ramadan. Egyptian authorities have regularly opened the crossing every few weeks, and the length of time the crossing will remain open this time is expected to reflect the degree to which Egypt would be willing to show flexibility toward Hamas.

So far, Egypt is refusing to talk with Hamas about leaving the Rafah crossing permanently, as it had promised to do as part of the agreement for a tahadiyeh (calm) in the Gaza Strip between Israel and Hamas. Egypt is concerned by recent Hamas declarations that it would like to include an additional interlocutor in the indirect talks with Israel, possibly Germany. Some reports have Hamas demanding European intermediaries replace the Egyptians entirely. The tension between Cairo and Hamas has resulted in repeated delays in the dispatch of a delegation of negotiators from the Gaza Strip to Egypt for talks on Shalit.

In Israel, Hamas' tough stance is being interpreted as a signal to Cairo that the Palestinians opposed Egypt's promise to step up the talks on Shalit as soon as the tahadiyeh went into effect.

For its part, Egypt is trying to ensure that the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas does not collapse, and is inviting smaller Palestinian factions to Cairo for talks. Egypt is particularly sensitive to the criticism voiced by Palestinian factions, primarily Islamic Jihad, who claimed that the Palestinians did not receive in return for what they had been promised - essentially the lifting of the siege on the Gaza Strip.

Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin told the cabinet Sunday that intelligence knows of 20 different terror attacks being planned in the Strip. Islamic Jihad is the focus of the security concerns, and the extremist group has warned openly that it may carry out a major attack along the border fence between Israel and the Strip.

Noam Shalit, father of abducted Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit, met two weeks ago with French officials, and asked for French President Nicolas Sarkozy's help. Shalit asked that Sarkozy discuss his son with Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Sarkozy is scheduled to arrive in Damascus tomorrow for an official visit, and the Shalit family expects him to address the matter, since Gilad is a French citizen, and Assad shelters Hamas' political leadership in Damascus, led by Khaled Meshal. "Assad undoubtedly holds sway over the members of the Hamas political bureau, and can help advance the stuck negotiations," said members of the campaign to free Shalit.

Tuesday will be Shalit's 800th day in captivity. Shalit's family and supporters sent Prime Minister Ehud Olmert a personal letter on Monday, stating that time is not working in Gilad's favor, and demanding he be brought home, despite the heavy price involved. Bringing back captive soldiers is a moral "value," they said.

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