Hamas is holding fast in the Shalit affair, to the chagrin of Israel, under pressure to see its soldier freed, writes Khaled Amayreh in occupied East Jerusalem
Reacting to Israeli "dithering and procrastination", Hamas has decided to up the ante as to the price Israel has to pay in order to secure the release of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier Palestinian fighters captured during a cross-border attack in the Gaza Strip more than two years ago.
Hamas officials in Gaza said this week the group was now demanding the release of 1,500 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails and detention centres in exchange for freeing Shalit.
The new demands by Hamas, that Israel dismisses as a "bargaining tactic", was conveyed by Egyptian officials to Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak who visited Cairo last week. Barak said the Israeli government was making strenuous efforts to get Shalit released as soon as possible, adding that he expected indirect negotiations with Hamas in this regard to be accelerated.
Barak also suggested that Egyptian-mediated negotiations be conducted in secret to ensure a successful outcome.
Barak's statements came amid growing public pressure on the Israeli government to conclude the Shalit affair before the Israeli premier and Kadima leader Ehud Olmert leaves office in a few weeks. Olmert, who has been implicated in a corruption and graft scandal and interrogated several times by the police, decided recently to resign from his post as prime minister.
The Shalit family and many other Israelis are now demanding that Olmert make the utmost effort to get the imprisoned Israeli soldier released before his departure.
There are several reasons why Israel may now be more willing to engage in serious negotiations with Hamas over the Shalit affair. During its frequent incursions and military operations prior to the ceasefire with Hamas more than two months ago, the Israeli occupation army and Israeli intelligence services rounded up numerous Palestinians from Gaza in order to extract information that might lead to the discovery of Shalit's whereabouts. These efforts failed to provide results.
Further, the Hamas movement has been showing an extraordinary degree of tenacity and patience ever since the capture of Shalit by refusing to kowtow to Israeli military pressure. In recent weeks, some London-based Arabic newspapers published reports alleging that Israel was planning to assassinate key Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip if Hamas insisted on its demands with regards to a prospective prisoner swap. Hamas officials have dismissed these reports as mere disinformation, throwing the gauntlet down before the Israeli intelligence services.
Meanwhile, Israel is pushing Egypt to pressure Hamas into lowering its "exaggerated demands" as to the number and quality of Palestinian prisoners the group wants Israel to release in return for Shalit. The Israeli media has been publishing reports alleging that Egypt is blaming Hamas for the "stalemate" reached in the Shalit affair. There has been no word from Egypt corroborating the Israeli allegations.
This week, Hamas spokesman in Gaza Fawzi Barhoum said during a radio interview that Egypt was showing understanding to Hamas's demands. "The problem is not with Egypt, which is making appreciated efforts to end this problem. The problem is with the Israeli occupation regime which thinks that Hamas will budge under pressure."
In fact, Hamas itself is coming under intense pressure from the families of Palestinian prisoners to cling to its demands, namely that Israel should free 450 veteran prisoners whose names have already been transferred to Egypt. The list includes the bulk of Hamas's political and resistance leaders held in Israeli jails. It also includes dozens of Hamas-affiliated lawmakers and former cabinet ministers, as well as other elected officials who were abducted by Israel soon after Shalit's capture and held as bargaining chips in Israeli jails ever since.
Hamas is also demanding the release of dozens of women and children detained in Israeli jails for resisting the Israeli occupation.
A Sunni movement, Hamas seems also eager to prove to the Palestinians as well as to the overall Arab and Muslim masses that it won't be any less tough than Hizbullah, the Lebanese Shia organisation that eventually succeeded in getting Israel to release all Lebanese prisoners, including Samir Al-Kuntar, from Israeli custody. Israel considered Kuntar a "grand terrorist" for killing Israeli settlers in northern Israel nearly three decades ago.
Israel has always sought to justify its refusal to free Palestinian inmates with hefty prison sentences on the grounds that their hands are stained with Jewish blood. However, the release of Al-Kuntar two months ago, as well as the recent freeing of two veteran Palestinian prisoners also with "Jewish blood" on their hands, proved that this sacrosanct mantra is losing credence and may be collapsing.
If Israel has been willing to release "killers of Jews" in return for the repatriation of the bodies of dead Israelis, then Israel should be even more willing to do the same in return for liberating from captivity an Israeli soldier who is alive. This is the view of Benyamin Benaliezer, Israeli minister of national infrastructure.
Speaking during a local election campaign in the town of Migdal Haeimek Tuesday, 2 September, Benaliezer said that Israel should be willing to pay any price to get Shalit freed. "Of course any swap deal would have to be approved by the government, but we must get done with this issue," he said.
Benaliezer rejected the view that the release of so many Palestinian prisoners, including Hamas leaders, would weaken the standing of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. "Abbas is already too weak," he said.