Israel, Hamas Wrestle Over a Prisoner Swap

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Jonathan Nackstrand / AFP / Getty

A picture taken on October 2, 2009 shows captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in a video broadcast on an Israeli news channel.

Although the likelihood remains that Israeli Sergeant Gilad Shalit will spend a fourth New Year's Eve in the company of his Hamas captors in Gaza, the mounting tension over the issue on both sides of the Israel-Hamas divide reflect a growing expectation that his release is closer than ever. Under strong pressure from the soldier's family, backed by Israeli public opinion, the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears to be moving toward accepting a deal brokered through German mediators that will see Shalit returned in exchange for the release of more then 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons. But strong opposition persists, even in the cabinet, to releasing men who have taken up arms against Israel. And one of Netanyahu's key conditions — that some 100 of the more hardcore prisoners on the list not be returned to their homes in the West Bank, but instead move either to Gaza or abroad — may yet be a deal-breaker for Hamas.

Just as pressure is growing on the Israeli government from an electorate desperate to see Shalit, who has been in captivity for more than 1,200 days now, safely returned to his family, so is Hamas facing rising expectations of a deal from the families of Palestinian prisoners — as well as the long-suffering residents of Gaza, who hope Shalit's release will allow the lifting of Israel's crippling economic siege. Tensions are high among prisoners' families and inside the prisons themselves, where the question of who is and isn't on the Hamas list is dominating conversation. Although earlier speculation suggested that the list included such names as Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, widely viewed as a successor to the movement's President Mahmoud Abbas, and Ahmed Saadat, leader of the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Israeli sources say Hamas has accepted that neither man will be freed as part of the Shalit deal.

Although there are still serious gaps between the positions of the two sides, the talks remain positive. Israel has delivered its position to Hamas, whose leaders are currently convening — the German mediator is to return to the region to hear their response after the Christmas holiday. The major sticking point could be Israel's demand that more than 100 prisoners from the West Bank be sent abroad, mainly to European countries that might be willing to accept them. A senior Israeli source close to the negotiations told TIME that Israel would be willing to compromise and release them to Gaza and to some Arab states. But Hamas officials have stated publicly that the movement can never accept the deportation of Palestinians from their land. "We demand that all prisoners will be released to their homes and families" said Osama Hamdan, the Hamas representative in Lebanon. But Israel's government is under pressure from its security agency, the Shin Bet, which insists that the men not be allowed to return to the West Bank because most continue to play a role in militant networks there from their prison cells, and will be even more effective threat if free to move around there.

Under conflicting pressure from different constituencies at home, Netanyahu is projecting himself through media leaks as a man facing an agonizing decision. His cabinet met this week for two full days of discussion on the proposal relayed by the German mediator — a move some said was designed to signal deep dilemmas and conflicts over a decision that could be taken relatively quickly.

Hamas faces internal conflicts of its own on the issue, with a more hard line position adopted by Khaled Mashal and the exiled leadership based in Damascus, while the movement's more pragmatic Gaza leadership wants to resolve the Shalit issue as quickly as possible in the hope of ending the blockade that prevents the rebuilding of the 20,000 or so residences and extensive infrastructure damaged or destroyed during the Israel military offensive in Gaza a year ago.

Despite the air of expectation raised by the public discussion in Israel of the proposed prisoner swap, there may be some weeks ahead before any deal is concluded. And it's far from certain that Hamas will accept Israel's response. Says a senior Israeli official, "We know they will have their reservations, so its going to be after the holidays — if at all."