Ali Waked
July 18, 2008 - 3:29pm,7340,L-3569857,00.html

With Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser laid to rest, all eyes are now focused on the ongoing efforts to secure the release of Gilad Shalit – who was taken captive before them and is still being held in the Gaza Strip.

This coming Tuesday he was meant to be discharged after having completed his three years of mandatory service. Shalit's friends, who will be discharged without him, have announced they intend to stage a protest march beginning at the army's recruitment center in Gilad's name.

For now Hamas is refusing to discuss Israel's demand it make changes to the lists detailing which prisoners it wants released in return for Shalit.

A Hamas source told Ynet that if Israel attempts to harden its positions as a direct reaction to the scathing public criticism following the release of terrorist Samir Kuntar, "Shalit will remain in captivity for decades."

The source said that while Hamas was prepared for the change in Israel's stance, the group does not see the situation as different in any way following the swap with Hizbullah.

"The two are unrelated, but the Kuntar deal proves that patience and fortitude and a tough standing on the part of the Palestinian public will eventually lead to us seeing celebrations here (in Gaza) similar to those in Lebanon yesterday," he said.

"The public and the prisoner's families are pressuring us to stand our ground on the number and type of prisoners were are demanding released. These are prisoners condemned to dozens of life sentences. A prisoner who is supposed to sit in jail for 999 years, how will he get out if not in a deal like this one?"

According to the source Hamas has no intention of changing any of its demands. "The numbers and names are known, we are waiting for a clear Israeli answer."

The source also addressed the attempt to link the opening of the Rafah crossing to the prisoner exchange deal, saying that using the crossing as leverage will not influence Hamas. "The Shalit family should know that the Israeli government has tried to impose various things on us for over two years – and they have failed. We are ready to close the deal tomorrow, and the answer to why we aren't doing that rests with your government."

The source rejected the claims that the list of prisoners being demanded by Hamas is too problematic for Israel.

"Did the Israelis expect us to submit the names of criminal felons? We demand the release of prisoners who, without the kidnapping of soldiers and prisoner exchange deals, have no chance of ever being freed. So it is only natural that we demand these prisoners as our top priority, and we have no intention of backing down."

Germans to replace Egyptians as mediators?

Hamas' top representative in Lebanon, Osama Khamdan, said in an interview with 'Al-Jazeera' that figures outside Hamas have been pressing his men to transfer the mediation reins on the Shalit issue from Egypt to Germany – which brokered the deal between Israel and Hizbullah.

Khamdan added that Kuntar's release proves that Hamas' demand to free 1,000 minors and female prisoners from Israeli jails is a viable stipulation, "and if we wage the battle right, we will ultimately reach the desired result."

But despite the dead end, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office in Jerusalem hopes efforts to secure Shalit's release will be accelerated. At this point no information has been issued regarding intentions to send Olmert's special envoy overseeing MIA affairs, Ofer Dekel, to Cairo.

Defense officials in Israel, including Defense Minister Ehud Barak, have made it clear that there will be no discussion on the status of the Rafah crossing without substantial progress on Shalit.

An official familiar with the proceedings said that there is no possibility of releasing hundreds of the prisoners Hamas is demanding. The source said that the list in question called for the release of convicted murderers and terrorists involved in carrying out attacks.

However – several cabinet ministers are becoming increasingly convinced that the government must prepare for the release of 'high-profile' prisoners despite the harsh response such a move with likely draw from the Right and the families of terror victims.

"Israel will have to pay a heavy price, certainly after releasing Kuntar to bring Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev home," said Jerusalem officials.


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