Israel, Hamas restart negotiations on prisoner swap deal
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has confirmed that the government has resumed efforts in advancing a prisoner swap deal with Hamas movement, which may lead to the release of kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, Xinhua reported.
Shalit was taken hostage by Hamas and two other Palestinian groups in a cross border raid on June 25, 2006.
Netanyahu's comments came after deputy head of the Hamas political bureau in Damascus Mousa Abu Marzook told the London- based Arabic language newspapers Al-Hayat that talks for a deal had resumed.
The negotiations are being conducted through the mediation of Gerhard Conrad, a senior officer with the Germany's Federal Intelligence Service known by its German acronym BND.
Conrad is a veteran of negotiations between Israel and its enemies and he was involved in the talks for the return of Israeli soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, whose abduction by Hezbollah in 2006 triggered the second Lebanon war.
A DIVERSION FROM PEACE TALKS
Professor Muhammad Dajani from the Department of Political Science at Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem told Xinhua that he hoped the negotiations will be successful but he feared it was just a diversion from the peace talks between Israel and Hamas' Palestinian rival PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization).
"It's meant to make things go backwards and create a new issue on the ground," he said, "for Hamas it is to overcome negotiations and come back into the news and for Israel it will sidetrack the negotiations process."
Peace talks between Israel and the PLO under the leadership of Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas were re- launched under the supervision of U.S. President Barack Obama.
However, the talks came to a halt on Sept. 26 as a 10-month freeze on Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank ended.
Abbas has refused to continue negotiations until the freeze is extended but Netanyahu have so far been reluctant to do so.
Asked if the negotiations would result in Shalit's release, Dajani was skeptical. "I hope they would but I don't think they would," he said.
AN ONGOING PROCESS
Mordechai Kedar from Bar-Ilan University's Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA) outside Tel Aviv however sees the talks on Shalit's release as an ongoing process that just happened to leak to the media in the last couple of days.
"This issue continues all the time behind the scenes and once in a while it comes out to the media, this is what happened," he said. He rejected any connections to the ongoing talks with the PLO.
"Once in a while without any visible reason to restart the negotiations, they begin," Kedar said, "this is without any connection with anything else that might be happening in the region. Not the negotiations with the PLO and not situation with Israel and the United States."
According to Kedar both parties are interested in keeping the negotiations going on.
Israel wants Gilad Shalit back and the Hamas want its men back, he argued, "so there is a constant will on both sides to proceed with this issue."
The main question in the negations is the number of Palestinian prisoners that Israel would have to release in exchange for Shalit. One figure often mentioned is 1,000, but other reports said it would be around 600.
Yossi Mekelberg, a associate fellow of the Middle East and North Africa Program at the British think-tank Chatham House, said he believed that as time passed by Israel was becoming less willingly to pay the price Hamas asked for.
"At the beginning he was seen as a barging chip to get Israel to release some of the prisoners that they were holding," he said.
"They thought that Israel will do whatever it takes to get a soldier home, this notion seems to be winding down after four years of negotiations without any results," Mekelberg added.
The Israeli government once said it would not negotiate with the groups it regarded as terrorists, however as time passed this policy change and a number of prisoner exchange deals were done.
But after the latest one in 2008, which saw the return of the bodies of Regev and Goldwasser to Israel in exchange for five prisoners, it is believed that Israel's policy was changed and it would not exchange prisoners for dead soldiers.
Gilad Shalit is believed to be alive and in Oct. 2009 when a video was sent from Hamas to Shalit's parents in which he pleaded for the Israeli government to negotiate on his release.
"There is a question on the number and quality of the prisoners that would be released," he said, referring to the term used to describe prisoners that have been involved in killing of Israeli civilians.
While Shalit's parents are widely supported by the public in Israel with thousands launched an 11-day march from Shalit's home in northern Israel to Jerusalem in June 2010.
Organizations comprising of families that lost relatives in attacks remain critical of any plans to release prisoners, which have raised the possibility of petitioning the Israeli Supreme Court to stop any future exchange.