- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 22, 2009

JERUSALEM — Israel would approve a proposed prisoner swap deal with Gaza’s Hamas rulers if they agree to the deportation of some Palestinian prisoners selected as part of a trade for a lone Israeli soldier, Israeli media reported Tuesday.

Israel relayed its response to the proposed swap and handed over a list of Palestinians it wants exiled, Israeli radio stations and news Web sites said without naming the sources of their information.

A senior Hamas official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to release details of the talks, confirmed receipt of the Israeli answer. The Hamas government was scheduled to hold its weekly meeting later Tuesday, and the deal was likely on the agenda.

A whirlwind of activity at top levels of the Israeli government had suggested a deal to swap 1,000 Palestinians for 23-year-old Sgt. Gilad Schalit could be close.

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 also would 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 after 3½ years of captivity, 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 because Israel vowed to keep the restrictions as long as Sgt. Schalit was a captive.

Israeli leaders ended debates on the latest proposal early Tuesday without announcing a decision.

An Israeli government official declined to confirm the Israeli media reports but 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 close to the negotiations had said the German mediator carrying Hamas’ proposal had given Israel until Wednesday to take action. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the media.

Mr. Netanyahu might score points at home by ending the young man’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 had balked at Hamas’ demand to release Palestinians convicted of major attacks such as the bombing of a Passover celebration that killed 30 people in 2002.

It sees deportation of such 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, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has had little to show for years of peace efforts.

Abbas could be in even bigger trouble if Israel releases Marwan Barghouti, a popular grass-roots leader who is Mr. Abbas’ key challenger inside Fatah. Barghouti, convicted in the deaths of five people, is said by a Palestinian close to the talks to be on the list of those to be freed, and is considered a strong contender to unseat Mr. Abbas.

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 Sgt. Schalit was captured in a cross-border raid in 2006. 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.

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