- Associated Press - Sunday, October 17, 2010

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel said Sunday it has resumed indirect talks with the Hamas rulers of Gaza on swapping hundreds of Palestinian prisoners for a captive soldier held for more than four years.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the German mediator who has been working to broker a deal to bring home the soldier for about a year has returned to the region.

“We are operating at all times, in different and various ways, to bring him back. One of these ways, even the main way, is this negotiation, which indeed resumed a few weeks ago,” Mr. Netanyahu told Israel Army Radio on Sunday.

The announcement was the latest twist in a saga that has gripped the country’s attention since Hamas-linked militants captured Sgt. Gilad Schalit in a June 2006 raid across the Gaza-Israeli border.

Secret negotiations over a swap, mediated by Egypt and more recently by Germany, repeatedly have broken down, and talks have been stalled for months.

Hamas, which seeks Israel’s destruction, has no official relations with Israel.

Deals proposed in the past would have entailed Israel’s swapping about 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for Sgt. Schalit. The most recent talks broke down over Israel’s refusal to release a number of prisoners who carried out deadly attacks on civilians because of fears they would return to violence. Hamas insists these prisoners be part of any deal.

Hamas officials said over the weekend that the lead German mediator had returned to the region to resume talks. Neither Mr. Netanyahu nor Hamas officials provided any details about the current state of negotiations.

But Hamas spokesman Ayman Taha said that the German mediator’s visit was “exploratory” and that he had not brought a new offer.

“Netanyahu is misleading Israeli public opinion when he talks about his willingness to make major concessions in order to conclude the deal,” Mr. Taha said.

Since his capture over four years ago, Sgt. Schalit has received no outside visitors, and little is known about his whereabouts or condition.

Last October, Hamas released a short video of him that appeared to show him in good health. Before that, the only signs he was still alive were three letters and an audiotape. Hamas has not allowed the Red Cross to see him.

Sgt. Schalit’s plight has touched many in Israel. Jewish citizens perform mandatory military service, giving many the feeling that his fate could have befallen someone in their family.

Sgt. Schalit’s family has enjoyed broad public support for their campaign to release the soldier and went ahead Sunday with their regular weekly demonstration before each Israeli Cabinet meeting. Posters, bumper stickers and T-shirts with Sgt. Schalit’s image are common. Last summer, the family led crowds of marchers in a weeklong trek across the country to draw attention to the soldier’s plight.

Noam Schalit, the soldier’s father, said Sunday he knows of no new progress in the talks.

The release of prisoners also is emotionally charged for Palestinians.

Palestinians view the 7,000 prisoners Israel holds as heroes, and most have a relative or know someone who has done time. Israel detains them for offenses ranging from participating in attacks to stone-throwing and belonging to organizations Israel considers illegal.

Hamas is not part of U.S.-sponsored peace talks between Israel and Hamas’ rival, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Those talks, however, have stalled since their launch in Washington last month over Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank.

Israeli and Palestinian officials confirmed that plans to bring their leaders together at a meeting in France this week have been postponed. French President Nicolas Sarkozy hoped to host the meeting Thursday.

Late Saturday, Mr. Netanyahu’s office announced the meeting was delayed, giving no explanation. Palestinian officials said the agenda still hadn’t been settled.

There was no immediate comment from Paris.

In northern Gaza, meanwhile, an Israeli airstrike killed two militants.

The Israeli military said its air force targeted a squad of militants preparing to fire rockets at Israel.

The militants’ affiliation was not immediately known, but they did not appear to be connected to Hamas or any other major group since there was no claim of responsibility.

The Israeli military said more than 165 rockets and mortars have been fired at Israel from Gaza so far this year.

Associated Press writer Ibrahim Barzak contributed to this report from Gaza City, Gaza Strip.

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