Ma'an News Agency
December 24, 2009 - 1:00am

Hamas is leaning toward accepting Israel’s demand to deport more than 100 prisoners in an exchange deal that would secure the release of a captured soldier, news reports said on Thursday.

The Lebanese daily Al-Mustaqbal reported on Wednesday that Hamas would allow 123 prisoners to be deported in an exchange that would also see the release of some 1,000 Palestinians from Israeli prisons.

Israel wants to deport prisoners who were convicted of carrying out or organizing attacks that resulted in the deaths of Israelis. Many of the attacks in question took place in the context of the second Palestinian intifada against the Israeli occupation.

The swap deal now hinges on the demand to expel these prisoners either to Gaza or abroad, rather than release them to the West Bank.

Senior Hamas officials from the Gaza Strip were expected to travel on Thursday to Damascus to meet with the group’s top political leaders, including Khalid Mash’al, to discuss Israel’s latest response. Hamas received the response from a German intermediary who visited Gaza on Wednesday.

The deputy head of Hamas' Political Bureau, Moussa Abu Marzouk said on Wednesday that Hamas would respond to the mediator within a few days.

Abu Marzouk, one of the leaders living in exile in Damascus, told the London-based Arabic daily Al-Hayat that there had been "unprecedented progress, but still not enough so that the deal would get underway, because of disagreements with the Israeli security establishment."

Al-Hayat also reported that, according to Western diplomatic sources, Israel had agreed to release 443 out of 450 prisoners listed by Hamas, on condition that 100 would be expelled. Another 500 prisoners would be released in the deal, but were not specified on Hamas’ list.

Hamas sources also told Al-Hayat that Israel is refusing to release certain high-profile prisoners, including Fatah leader Marwan Barghouthi, PFLP Secretary-General Ahmad Sa'adat, and Hamas military leader Abdallah Barghouti.

The issue of expulsion is sensitive for the families of the prisoners. Some families interviewed by Ma’an said that while they prefer their relatives unconditional release, they would except exile to Gaza.

Abla Sa’adat, the wife of Ahmad Sa’adat, told Ma’an, "My husband’s position is that he wants to stay in the country, but under the worst circumstance he would accept deportation to Gaza."

Deporting prisoners would also put Israel in direct violation of the US-backed Road Map peace plan. Authored soon after the deportation of Palestinian fighters after the siege of the Church of the Nativity, the document obligates Israel to "[take] no actions undermining trust, including deportations."

Gaza Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahhar said Wednesday that after delivering Israel's response, the German mediator left Gaza and returned to Germany for Christmas. He said the mediator would be returning to the Strip in a few days, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

Israel is negotiating with Hamas through German and Egyptian mediators in hopes of freeing Gilad Shalit, a soldier captured in 2006 from a military base by militants who tunneled into Israel from Gaza.

Also on Wednesday, Israel’s military chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi said that returning Shalit home was a national duty.

"Bringing back Gilad Shalit is a national mission, and both covert and overt actions are being carried out to do so," Ashkenazi told a gathering of youth groups in the Israeli port city of Ashdod on Wednesday.

"As the chief of staff, I am responsible for every soldier. I feel obliged to bring him back home; naturally it's better to keep a discussion of the details to closed forums, but I hope that the mission will be completed," he said, according to Haaretz.


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