Both Palestinian and Israeli officials confirm that Hamas militants have submitted to Israel a list of Palestinian prisoners to be released in exchange for Cpl. Gilad Shalit, the Israeli solider kidnapped in Gaza last summer. But representatives from both sides say that any deal "would take some time."
The Associated Press reports that Israeli security officials are looking at the list — which conflicting reports say ranges from 350 to 1,300 names — "signaling a possible breakthrough in efforts to win the young man's freedom."
The militants holding Shalit have repeatedly demanded a large-scale release of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel in exchange for the soldier. After months of deadlock, officials on both sides confirmed Saturday that the Palestinians had submitted a list through Egyptian mediators.
An Israeli security official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said yesterday that the Shin Bet security service was reviewing the list and would soon give recommendations to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Corporal Shalit, a member of the Israel Defense Forces, was kidnapped last June by Hamas-linked militants, who demanded the release of all Palestinian women and minors in exchange for his safe return. Israel invaded the Gaza Strip to recover Shalit, sparking fighting that soon spread to Lebanon, after Hizbullah militants kidnapped two more Israeli soldiers there.
Ze'ev Schiff of Haaretz writes that Israel's receipt of the list is only the first step in securing Shalit's release, and that agreement on the Palestinian prisoners to be freed is "a major obstacle to the conclusion of the negotiations." Mr. Schiff also suggests that talk of Shalit's "imminent release" is premature - both Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and the Egyptian negotiators have said such things before, without their predictions being borne out. But Schiff writes that there may be cause to believe things are different this time.
Egyptian officials say that Hamas' attitude on the issue has recently changed for the better, due to the organization's desire to reach an understanding with European states over lifting the blockade of Gaza and establishing full relations with the Palestinian unity government. European representatives announced that unless Hamas takes a positive step, which must be expressed first of all in Shalit's release, there is no chance for a thaw in the European position.
If that is true, then the likelihood for progress in the negotiations toward Shalit's release has increased. It should be remembered that, in addition to Shalit, Palestinian groups have been holding a BBC journalist for several weeks.
The New York Times reports that the list includes a few high-profile names who would be "especially difficult for Israel to release."
The list of about 450 names, according to the news reports, included Marwan Barghouti, a grass-roots leader of the Fatah faction and former leader of the Tanzim, a Fatah militia, in the West Bank. He was sentenced in 2002 to five life sentences for his role in the deaths of four Israelis and a foreigner. The list also reportedly included Ahmed Saadat, the leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, who is accused of coordinating the assassination of an Israeli tourism minister in 2001. ...
The Israeli government is always reluctant to release prisoners who have been convicted of killing Israelis. Israel Radio reported on Sunday that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert would convene a meeting with his security cabinet this week to discuss the standards to determine how Palestinian prisoners could be released in a deal to free Corporal Shalit.
The possible release of Marwan Barghouti, whom some Palestinians call the "Palestinian Nelson Mandela," is of particular importance to both Palestinians and Israelis, reports The Daily Telegraph of London. To many Palestinians, the Telegraph writes, he is "the only politician capable of leading his people out of decades of Israeli occupation and fratricidal bloodletting to nationhood," while to Israelis, "he is a ruthless terrorist who is rightly languishing in jail for his role in the murder of five people during the second intifada."
Palestinian hopes that Mr. Barghouti might be released were bolstered when his son Qassam was released from prison two weeks ago. Qassam briefly spoke to the Telegraph about his father.
On the key question of recognising Israel, Qassam said, his father had made up his mind. "He believes that what happened in 1948 is a part of history and we, as Palestinians, must now accept that there will always be an Israel," said the young man who has the same pudgy, whiskered face as his father. "The only solution for this conflict must be two states side by side, an Israeli state and a Palestinian state."
Not all Palestinians are in favor of Barghouti's release. Ynetnews reports that some members of Fatah "fear his release would boost support for rival faction Hamas by shifting political allegiences.
Barghouti's supporters in the party, however, seem to suggest that those opposing his release are only concerned with protecting their own power in Fatah.