Israel, Hamas in prisoner deal talks
Exchange would have implications across Mideast
JERUSALEM - Israel and the Islamist group Hamas appeared to be nearing a deal last night to exchange a captured Israeli soldier for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, possibly including a popular leader, a move with far-reaching implications not only for stalled Middle East peace talks but for a range of regional relations.
Expectations of a swap in the coming week have been raised by meetings in Cairo sponsored by the Egyptian government and by a growing number of statements by Israeli, Palestinian, and Egyptian officials.
The emerging agreement, should it be approved, would trade Sergeant Gilad Shalit, who was seized by Palestinian militants in a cross-border raid in June 2006, for hundreds of Palestinians in Israeli prisons, including many convicted of organizing acts of terror.
Hamas and Israeli officials said the deal could include Marwan Barghouti, one of the most popular leaders in the West Bank, widely seen as a potential heir to the current Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas.
“There is a serious chance Barghouti will be released,’’ said Danny Danon, deputy speaker of the Israeli parliament and a key member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, in an interview in his office.
But a deputy prime minister, Silvan Shalom, told the BBC’s Arabic service that Barghouti would not be part of any trade.
While prisoner exchanges have occurred in the past, this one has unusual potential to allow the Israelis to shift some policies toward Palestinians, as well as to unleash violence against Israel, making it the topic of anguished debate in the country. It is also being passionately debated among Palestinians because of the division between Hamas and its rival, the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority.
Many Israelis have followed the fate of Shalit as if he were their own son. Most Israelis perform mandatory military service, and the government goes to sometimes extraordinary lengths to bring home soldiers or their remains. Yet the release of legions of violent fighters and the chance that Hamas would gain politically over the Palestinian Authority have made this a complex negotiation for the Israelis.
“From our point of view, this will lay the ground for the next 9/11,’’ Yossi Mendellevich, an engineer whose 13-year-old son Yuval died in a bus bombing in Haifa in 2003, said by telephone.
“We know they will not turn to macramé and painting,’’ he said of the prisoners to be released. “This will give the tail wind to all those in the Arab world who believe the way to defeat Israel is through terrorist activity. It will lead to the kidnapping of another soldier and to the next release and so on. What will be the end?’’
Yaakov Perry, former head of the Shin Bet internal security agency, told Israel Radio that while a real risk existed, “The past has shown that some of the prisoners do not return to terror and some portion are integrated in various operative positions.’’
Israelis are also concerned by Hamas’s request that some Israeli Arabs be released, fearing that Hamas’s standing would increase among the 20 percent of Israel’s citizens who are Palestinians, some of whom Israel fears are already becoming radicalized.
Moreover, because Hamas receives a great deal of support from Iran, any boost for Hamas could strengthen a country that Israel considers the region’s greatest menace.
Among Palestinians, any prisoner release is a source of joy. But this is an especially delicate moment in Palestinian politics. Abbas has vowed not to run again for the Palestinian presidency because of what he said was his frustration over Israeli and American policies.
With no clear successor to Abbas and a stalled peace process, some fear that if released prisoners are seen as gifts from Hamas, Abbas and his party will suffer a severe blow.
Ziad Abu Ein, the Palestinian Authority’s deputy minister for prisoner affairs, played down the damage that a prisoner exchange credited to Hamas could inflict on the authority and Abbas.
“This is the first time that Hamas will be releasing any prisoners,’’ Abu Ein said in a telephone interview. The Palestine Liberation Organization, by contrast, has released “tens of thousands’’ over the years, he said.