US & World

Israel gives response to Hamas prisoner swap offer

Israel said Tuesday that it would not bargain "at any cost" to secure the release of a soldier held by Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip, and relayed a list of Palestinian prisoners that it wants to deport as part of a proposed swap between two bitter foes. Israeli leaders are under immense domestic pressure to resolve the case of 23-year-old Sgt. Gilad Schalit, captured in a 2006 cross-border raid. Hamas, the target of Israel's devastating offensive in isolated Gaza a year ago, sees Schalit as a rich source of leverage for political and even economic gain.

Intense talks among Israel's top Cabinet ministers and security chiefs had raised hopes that a deal was close, but there were signs that differences remained.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Israel's top priority was to bring Schalit home, "not at any cost, but in every possible and appropriate way."

On Tuesday, Israeli media reported that Israel had delivered a response to Hamas demands for the release of 1,000 Palestinians, many of whom were involved in attacks. Without identifying sources, the reports said Israel would approve a swap if Hamas agrees to the deportation of some prisoners.

An Israeli government official said the question of whether certain prisoners would return to the West Bank or be deported was "clearly" an issue. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release details of the talks.

A Palestinian official said that in addition to seeking to deport about 100 prisoners, Israel also refuses to free seven of those involved in the most violent attacks on Israelis, including bombing masterminds. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the talks.

A senior Hamas official, who also declined to be named, confirmed receipt of the Israeli answer. The Hamas government was holding its weekly meeting Tuesday, and the deal was expected to be on the agenda.

Prisoner exchanges are controversial in Israel because of their potential to encourage militants to take more hostages. A deal perceived as favoring Gaza's Islamic militant rulers would also seem to run counter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's call for an uncompromising war on Palestinian violence.

But many Israelis have taken the plight of Schalit to heart and fervently want him freed, even if the price is high.

Should Israel agree to Hamas' demands, the Islamic militants could receive a hefty boost in their rivalry with the Western-backed Fatah movement, which controls the West Bank. Hamas also hopes an Israeli-led blockade of Gaza would be relaxed. Israel has vowed to keep the restrictions as long as Schalit was a captive.

Hamas has tried to lower the number of prisoners who could be exiled, but has said it was up to individual prisoners whether they would accept deportation.

Netanyahu might score points at home by ending Schalit's ordeal, but a large-scale release could also hurt his standing among Israelis who feel releasing prisoners convicted of violence would only invite more bloodshed.

Israel has balked at Hamas' demand to release Palestinians convicted of major attacks, like the bombing of a popular Jerusalem pizzeria that killed 15 people in 2001.

It sees deportation of violent militants as a way to defuse any outcry, on the assumption they would be less able to harm Israel from other countries or Gaza than from their homes in the West Bank.

Prisoners have near-iconic status in Palestinian society because nearly every family has had relatives in Israeli jails, so Hamas' stock could soar if it can claim credit for the largest prisoner release in years.

Hamas might use a swap to defend its claim that armed struggle is the only way to pry concessions from Israel. That argument could further undercut Hamas' main rival, Abbas, who has had little to show for years of peace efforts.

Hamas hopes a prisoner exchange would ease the Israeli and Egyptian blockade of impoverished Gaza, which has prevented the tiny territory from rebuilding after Israel's devastating offensive there a year ago.

Israel tightened access to Gaza after Schalit's capture. It then sealed off the territory, home to 1.5 million Palestinians, to all but humanitarian aid after Hamas violently seized power the following year.

© 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.