Thu, Feb 19, 2009 - Page 6 News List

Israel considering prisoner exchange

CONDITIONS Five tonnes of unexploded Israeli bombs went missing in Gaza. Israel fears Hamas was behind the theft, but the group said that it had nothing to do with it

AP , JERUSALEM

Palestinians take pictures next to unexploded Israeli army ammunition at a police station in Gaza City on Feb. 4. Five tonnes of unexploded Israeli bombs stored in the Gaza Strip under Hamas police guard have been stolen, UN officials said on Tuesday.

PHOTO: AP

Israel’s Security Cabinet opened debate yesterday on a possible prisoner exchange with Hamas, which could trade hundreds of Palestinian prisoners for a soldier captured in June 2007.

But a minister participating in the talks said it was unlikely that there would be a firm decision on the exact terms of a deal or which prisoners could be released.

“I think hopes have been raised just a little too high ahead of this Cabinet meeting. As I understand it, it is a process,” Social Welfare Minister Isaac Hertzog told Army Radio, adding that the same applied to talks on prospects for a long-term truce in Gaza, which are also on yesterday’s Cabinet agenda.

“We shall examine what is the current status of the truce and the intensive efforts to free Gilad Schalit, where things stand and what are the parameters,” Hertzog said.

On Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert repeated his new condition that the soldier, Sergeant Gilad Schalit, must be freed.

“We will negotiate his release first, and only then will we be willing to discuss things like the Gaza crossings and rebuilding the [Gaza] Strip,” Olmert said during a tour of Jerusalem.

Israel and Egypt clamped a blockade on Gaza after Hamas overran the crowded sliver of territory in 2007, allowing in only humanitarian supplies.

In Damascus, exiled Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal complained about Olmert’s new condition.

“There can be no truce unless the [Gaza] blockade is lifted and the crossings are opened. The truce issue should not be linked to the issue of prisoner Schalit,” Mashaal told reporters in Damascus after meeting with Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa.

Olmert said the negotiations could take weeks. His term will end soon, when a new prime minister takes over.

“Even if Schalit’s case cannot be resolved while I am in office, the foundations we built will facilitate in his release,” he said.

Last week’s Israeli election ended inconclusively. The Israeli president was to start consultations with political parties yesterday, beginning a period of up to seven weeks toward formation of a new government.

At stake in the truce talks is stabilizing the area after Israel’s punishing offensive in Gaza last month, aimed at Hamas militants who took part in or allowed daily rocket fire at Israel.

The offensive left about 1,300 Palestinians dead, at least half of them civilians, health officials said. Thirteen Israelis were killed.

Since the fighting ended on Jan. 18 when Hamas and Israel independently declared a truce, there has been sporadic rocket fire from Gaza, triggering Israeli airstrikes aimed at smuggling tunnels and Hamas outposts.

Early yesterday Israeli aircraft struck smuggling tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border and a disused Hamas security base near the town of Khan Younis, local Palestinian security officials said.

They said the Hamas base had already been largely reduced to rubble in previous air attacks since the Jan. 18 end of Israel’s land campaign in the strip, but this time a mosque left standing inside the compound was destroyed. There were no reports of casualties.

The Israeli military said aircraft hit seven tunnels and the Khan Younis base. Palestinians have reportedly fired 45 rockets and mortar shells since the Jan. 18 ceasefire.

Later in the morning a rocket fired from Gaza fell in open ground in southern Israel, police said. There were no reported casualties.

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