Hamas-Israel prisoner swap remains elusive

CAIRO, (IPS) - Despite intensive mediation efforts by Egyptian officials, a delegation from Palestinian resistance faction Hamas departed Cairo Saturday without securing a prisoner exchange deal with Israel. According to local analysts, fresh swap proposals — featuring the release of long-time Israeli captive Gilad Shalit — continue to run up against Israeli obduracy.

“The respective positions of Israel and Hamas are still miles apart,” Abdel-Halim Kandil, political analyst and editor-in-chief of independent weekly Sout al-Umma, told IPS.

Egyptian attempts to broker a prisoner exchange have been ongoing ever since the capture of Shalit, an Israeli army corporal, by Palestinian resistance factions in 2006. Until now, however, efforts have failed mainly due to Israeli objections to the number — and the political associations — of proposed Palestinian prisoners.

“The number isn’t the only sticking point,” says Kandil. “Hamas demands the release of prisoners of all ranks and from different resistance factions, including Fatah and Islamic Jihad. Israel, meanwhile, has stressed its refusal to release anyone convicted of ‘committing acts of violence’ against Israelis.”

Hopes for a mutually acceptable exchange deal were revived last week when a Hamas delegation arrived in Cairo to discuss the progress of an Egypt-backed Hamas-Israel ceasefire agreement with Egyptian officials. Along with the ceasefire, which took effect last month, the two sides also reportedly discussed fresh proposals for a prisoner exchange deal with Israel.

According to Mohamed Bassyouni, head of the Shura (upper) Council’s committee for Arab affairs and former ambassador to Israel, the proposal called for the release of Shalit in exchange for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, including some convicted of armed resistance against Israel.

“Egypt is currently working on a prisoner exchange proposal calling for the release of Shalit in return for about 450 Palestinian prisoners currently held by Israel,” Bassyouni told IPS. “The initiative would extend to Palestinian prisoners convicted of ‘high crimes’ by Israeli courts, including those that Israel refers to as ‘having Israeli blood on their hands.’

“It would certainly be in the interests of both Israel and Hamas to conclude the agreement,” Bassyouni added.

The offer, however, reportedly met with a cold response from Israel, according to analysts and Hamas officials.

“While Hamas is demanding the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners — from an estimated 15,000 currently languishing in Israeli prisons — the Israelis continue to insist on releasing no more than 71,” said Kandil.

Moussa Abu Marzouk, assistant head of Hamas’s political bureau, was quick to reject the counter-offer.

“Hamas refused Israel’s counter-offer, transmitted by Egyptian mediators, for the release of only 71 prisoners from the 450 that we originally demanded,” Abu Marzouk was quoted as saying on Sunday. “We refuse to make any concessions on any of these 450 names.”

Along with a cessation of hostilities between Israel and resistance factions based in the Gaza Strip, the month-old ceasefire agreement calls for the gradual reopening of border crossings into and out of the Hamas-governed territory. This includes the Rafah border crossing, which represents the strip’s sole transit point along its 14-kilometer border with Egypt.

Since Hamas wrested control of the Gaza Strip one year ago, Israel has kept its crossings with the enclave hermetically sealed. The Egyptian government, meanwhile, citing the lack of a formal protocol governing border traffic, has completed the blockade by keeping the Rafah terminal sealed as well.

Backed by the US and the EU, the de facto siege of the Gaza Strip has destroyed the territory’s economy and deprived much of its population of vital commodities, including foodstuffs and medicine.

But since the ceasefire took effect almost one month ago, Israel — citing alleged truce violations by Gaza-based militants — has opened its border crossings with Gaza only intermittently.

“The commercial crossings still have not opened, and the siege of the territory remains in place,” Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said Sunday.

Despite repeated requests by Hamas to reopen the Rafah crossing, Egypt, too, has kept its border with Gaza closed to all but “exceptional” cases, such as medical patients and students studying abroad.

“There is no mechanism for opening the Rafah border crossing except the 2005 border protocol,” said Bassyouni. That agreement, engineered by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and signed by the US-backed Palestinian Authority and Israel three years ago, was suspended with Hamas’s seizure of the Gaza Strip last summer, following its election victory in 2006.

According to Kandil, the precarious nature of the ceasefire — and the continued closure of Gaza’s borders by both Israel and Egypt — militates against the successful conclusion of a prisoner exchange deal.

“Given the circumstances, I doubt we’ll see a prisoner swap any time soon,” he said. “The negotiations on prisoners are based on the success of the ceasefire arrangement, and — thanks to Israeli intransigence — it looks like the ceasefire could collapse any moment.”

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