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Israel mulls freeing Hamas 'underwear bomber'

At age 21, Wafa al-Biss was arrested at the Israeli border with explosives sewn into her underwear. Five years later, she and some 1,000 other jailed Palestinians may be released as part of a deal to free Israeli Sgt. Gilad Shalit.

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Using a permit issued to her for medical treatment inside Israel, Wafa was caught with the bomb after coming under the suspicion of Israeli border guards at the Erez crossing. She tried to detonate the bomb while being strip-searched, according to reports, but it failed to explode.

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"Wafa was very sensitive; she used to cry whenever Palestinian children were killed by Israelis in the fighting," says Mr. Biss, in an attempt to explain his daughter's motives. "When Palestinian prisoners went on hunger strike in Israeli prisons, she would do it with them. I can see why she made the decision to do it."

Israel has been reluctant to meet Hamas's demand to free between 10 and 15 Palestinians involved in attacks on Israelis, including Marwan Barghouti, according to media reports. A charismatic Palestinian lawmaker, he was sentenced to five life sentences for organizing several deadly operations inside Israel.

In total, Palestinian attacks killed 490 Israeli civilians between the start of the second Palestinian uprising in September 2000 and December 2008, according to the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem. Israeli forces killed more than 4,700 Palestinians in the same period.

According to sources on both sides of the talks, Israel would also like to see many of the West Bank-based prisoners sent into exile for fear they would resume their violence against Israel, as did some Palestinians freed in previous releases.

"It's a real fear ... that some of these prisoners will return to the business of killing Israelis," says Uzi Eilam, a former brigadier general in Israel's army. "There is a lot of emotion among those who lost their loved ones in terror attacks, and the rest of the Israeli public really feels that."

Wafa is considered to have "no blood on her hands" – meaning she killed no Israelis – and had expressed remorse in interviews with Israeli reporters immediately following her arrest.

But Biss says that in messages passed through the International Red Cross, Wafa says she is determined to carry out another attack.

Because of an Israeli law banning Gaza residents from visiting their relatives in Israel's prisons, Wafa's parents haven't been able to see Wafa or speak with her.

"I am proud of my daughter, she is a fighter for her country," says Mrs. Biss. "And if she wants to do it again, we won't try to stop her. We will support her."

Another worry among Israelis is that the release of Palestinian prisoners will strengthen its enemy Hamas.

"Any deal would certainly end up supporting the Hamas regime," says Mr. Eilam, "even if it's unclear just how far that support will go."

Biss, an ardent supporter of Hamas's rival, Fatah, says he would nevertheless be thankful to the Islamist movement if they secure Wafa's release. He says all Palestinian militant factions should strive to capture Israeli soldiers. "It's the only thing we have in our struggle against the Israelis," he says. "With Shalit, Hamas has taken the power from Israel's hands. They put the Israelis in a position where they have no other choice."