Chances for imminent return of Israeli captive dim

JERUSALEM (AP) — The prospects for the outgoing Israeli government to clinch a last-minute deal to bring home a soldier held in Gaza looked bleak Tuesday as efforts to reach a prisoner swap with Hamas appeared all but over.

As Israeli Cabinet members discussed the faltering prisoner deal, the parents and brother of Gilad Schalit sat outside Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s office, wearing T-shirts with the soldier’s picture that said “help.”

Officials close to the talks said Olmert was not expected to instruct negotiators to resume their efforts to reach a deal with Hamas militants in Gaza who took Schalit captive nearly three years ago. Instead, he was expected to turn the matter over to incoming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

They spoke on condition of anonymity because the Cabinet meeting had not concluded.

Earlier however, Hamas leaders left open the door to a deal.

“There was some movement on this issue but not to the point of reaching an agreement,” Moussa Abu Marzouk, Hamas’ No. 2 official, told a Hamas Web site. “We are waiting for the Israeli Cabinet meeting to see whether they are going to approve the demand of the Palestinian factions that captured the Zionist soldier.”

The Islamic militant group is seeking the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in exchange, including dozens convicted in deadly attacks on Israelis.

Late Monday, Olmert, who will leave office as early as this week after a new government is formed, said no deal had been reached. He spoke shortly after Israeli negotiators returned from two days of Egyptian-brokered talks in Cairo.

As ministers arrived for the meeting, hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside, urging the government to find a way to bring home the 22-year-old Schalit.

The Schalit family, which has been camping outside Olmert’s official residence for more than a week, did not speak to reporters.

Israel is holding an estimated 8,000 Palestinian prisoners in its jails, and Hamas wants some 1,200 freed, including 450 who masterminded or were otherwise involved in suicide bombings and other deadly assaults.

Israel balked at approving the entire list and wanted to deport some of the more notorious prisoners, fearing they would resume their militant activity if they returned home, Israeli officials said.

“The Zionist occupation is trying to maneuver on the number of the prisoners, trying to exclude some of the names we listed, or to deport dozens of them, and this is rejected by Hamas,” Hamas official Salah Bardawil said.

Hamas officials say the list includes the Palestinians’ highest-profile prisoner, Marwan Barghouti, considered a likely successor to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Barghouti has spent the past seven years in an Israeli prison for his role in attacks that killed four Israelis and a Greek monk.

A continued impasse over Schalit could have far-reaching consequences for war-battered Gaza.

Israel has said it would not ease its crushing blockade of the territory, home to 1.4 million Palestinians, before Schalit returns home.

As long as the blockade is in place, Gaza cannot import the construction materials and equipment it desperately needs to rebuild after the Israeli offensive early this year.

A prisoner exchange accord might also shore up efforts to clinch a sustained truce between Israel and Hamas. Although Israel’s three-week military campaign ended in an informal truce, Gaza militants continue to fire rockets at southern Israel, drawing Israeli airstrikes in retaliation.

Developments on these two fronts might give a boost to Palestinian reconciliation talks, which are vital to Gaza reconstruction and have been going on in Cairo for nearly two weeks without any reported breakthroughs.

World donors are ready to contribute billions of dollars to rebuild Gaza. But they won’t funnel reconstruction funds through Hamas, which is branded by the West as a terrorist group.

Hamas overran Gaza in 2007 after trouncing forces loyal to the Fatah movement of Abbas, Israel’s Western-backed peacemaking partner.

Winning the soldier’s release would give Olmert a diplomatic victory in his final days as prime minister. Schalit was captured early in his administration and Olmert’s inability to free him has dogged his tenure.

Netanyahu is putting together a hawkish government that might be less receptive to Hamas demands.


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