Israel considers prisoner release for captured soldier

Israel’s Security Cabinet will meet today to consider a possible prisoner exchange with Hamas, freeing hundreds of Palestinian prisoners for a soldier captured in June 2007.

Israel’s Security Cabinet will meet today to consider a possible prisoner exchange with Hamas, freeing hundreds of Palestinian prisoners for a soldier captured in June 2007.

Government spokesman Mark Regev said a decision was also expected on terms of a long-term truce in Gaza after Israel’s bruising offensive there last month.

Yesterday prime minister Ehud Olmert repeated his new condition that the soldier, Sgt Gilad Schalit, must be freed.

“We will negotiate his release first, and only then will we be willing to discuss things like the Gaza crossings and rebuilding the (Gaza) Strip,” Mr Olmert said during a tour of Jerusalem.

Israel and Egypt clamped a blockade on Gaza after Hamas overran the crowded sliver of territory in 2007, allowing in only humanitarian supplies.

In Damascus, exiled Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal complained about Mr Olmert’s new condition.

“There can be no truce unless the (Gaza) blockade is lifted and the crossings are opened. The truce issue should not be linked to the issue of prisoner Schalit,” he told reporters in Damascus after meeting Arab League secretary general Amr Moussa.

Mr Olmert indicated that negotiations might take weeks. His term will end soon, when a new prime minister takes over.

“Even if Schalit’s case cannot be resolved while I am in office, the foundations we built will facilitate in his release,” he said.

Last week’s Israeli election ended inconclusively. Israel’s president will start consultations with political parties today, beginning a period of up to seven weeks towards formation of a new government.

At stake in the peace talks is stabilising the area after Israel’s punishing offensive in Gaza last month, aimed at Hamas militants who took part in or allowed daily rocket fire at Israel. The offensive left about 1,300 Palestinians dead, at least half of them civilians, according to Gaza health officials. Thirteen Israelis were killed.

Since the fighting ended on January 18 when Hamas and Israel independently declared a truce, there has been sporadic rocket fire from Gaza, triggering Israeli air strikes aimed at smuggling tunnels and Hamas outposts.

Yesterday the United Nations said five tons of unexploded Israeli bombs kept under Hamas guard in Gaza had been stolen.

“It’s clearly extremely dangerous and needs to be disposed of in a safe manner,” UN spokesman Richard Miron said. The Israeli military blamed Hamas for the theft.

Early today Israeli aircraft struck smuggling tunnels around the Gaza-Egypt border and a disused Hamas security base near the town of Khan Younis, Palestinian security officials said.

They said the Hamas base had already been largely reduced to rubble in previous air attacks since the end of Israel’s land campaign in the strip, but this time a mosque left standing inside the compound was destroyed.There was no report of casualties.

The Israeli military confirmed that its aircraft carried out attacks, but had no immediate details.

Egypt has been mediating the truce talks, because Hamas and Israel refuse to deal with each other directly.

Hamas does not recognise Israel. Many of its leaders stick to the group’s ideology calling for destruction of the Jewish state, but some say they would accept a Palestinian state next to Israel.

Israel, the US and the European Union list Hamas as a terror organisation because it has sent dozens of suicide bombers into Israel.

Hamas wants hundreds of Palestinian prisoners released in exchange for Schalit, the soldier captured in a cross-border raid. Some prisoners were convicted of participating in or planning some of the bloodiest Palestinian attacks against Israel.

Israel has had a policy of not freeing prisoners directly involved in deadly attacks, but the principle has been eroded in recent years.

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