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Is freedom near for captive Israeli soldier?

Hamas says that Gilad Shalit could be released in a week, but terms of a deal with Israel keep shifting.

By Rafael D. FrankelCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / August 15, 2008

Prisoner: Comrades of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit (pictured) called for his release at a Tel Aviv rally last month.

Amir Cohen/Reuters

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GAZA CITY, Gaza

More than two years after Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was captured by Gaza militants in a cross-border raid, he is being used more than ever as a pawn in the battle between Israel, Hamas, and Fatah over the future of the impoverished coastal strip.

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On Tuesday, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that the recent cease-fire between Israel and Hamas that calmed fighting along Gaza's border should be used to push for Mr. Shalit's return. And the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Hamas Foreign Minister Mahmoud al-Zahar said a prisoner swap in exchange for Shalit, believed to be alive and held inside Gaza, could conclude within a week.

But the reality remains complex and ever-changing. Hamas vacillates between suspending and reopening Egyptian-led negotiations over the fate of the soldier, and talks are now caught up in the terms of the Israel-Hamas truce and stymied by the internal Palestinian power struggle between rivals Hamas and Fatah.

As part of the cease-fire deal, Israel was to gradually open Gaza's borders in return for progress on the repatriation of Shalit. But, until Shalit is released, "there won't be anything even close to normality with Gaza's [border] crossings," says Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev.

That creates problems for Hamas, which is trying both to improve conditions for Gazans while maintaining its hard line against Israel. Hamas is demanding the release of some 450 Palestinian fighters – many serving time on murder charges – in return for Shalit. And in a July 28 interview with the Monitor, Hamas Foreign Minister Mahmoud al-Zahar says Hamas would have no problem "closing the file" on Shalit permanently if Israel did not improve its offer.

After making progress, negotiations hit a snag following the July 16 Israel-Hezbollah prisoner swap in which Israel turned over the remains of 199 Lebanese and Palestinian fighters plus five Lebanese prisoners in exchange for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers. Since then, speculation rose that either Israel lowered the price it would pay to retrieve Shalit because it did not want to be seen "losing" in both deals, or Hamas increased its demands after Israel released the terrorist Samir Kuntar as part of the Lebanon trade.

An agreement was further complicated when Palestinian Authority President and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas threatened to dissolve the PA if Israel released jailed Hamas ministers in an agreement over Shalit.

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