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Middle east

Shalit release is top priority, Olmert says

Video by Oliver FARRY

Text by Vaila FINCH

Latest update : 2009-02-16

The release of Gilad Shalit, captured by Hamas in 2006, became Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s top priority on Sunday. But to what extent is the young Israeli soldier a pawn in the peace process?

Amid all of the conditions that form part of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s peace negotiations with Hamas, it is the case of a young Israeli soldier which now tops Israel’s priorities.


Since the fragile ceasefire marking the end of Israel’s offensive on Gaza on Jan. 18, an enduring Egypt-brokered truce between Israel and Hamas has been struggling to see the light of day.


Israel reiterated this weekend that crossing points between Gaza and Israel would remain closed until Corporal Gilad Shalit’s release.


“[Our priorities are]iIn the first place (the liberation of Shalit), secondly halting smuggling from Egypt to the Gaza Strip and thirdly a total ceasefire,” declared Olmert at a conference on Sunday.


But Hamas has maintained that the captured soldier is a separate matter, to be resolved by Israel handing over hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, including Marwan Barghouthi, former West Bank leader of Hamas’s rival Fatah.


Soldier turned pawn


Gilad Shalit was 19 years old when he was captured by members of three militant groups in an attack on an army post on the Israeli-Gaza border, on June 25, 2006.


Only three signs of life have emerged since his kidnapping: two letters seemingly dictated by his kidnappers and an audio message sent in 2007.


Shalit is believed to be held in a deep underground tunnel in Gaza, prompting speculation that he was killed in Israeli raids on the territory during the recent three-week offensive.


But Sufyan Ramahi, a Palestinian journalist based in Paris, refutes the idea: “Surely (Shalit) is still alive because it is in the interests of Palestinians to do all possible to treat him very well,” he says, “in order to have the chance to free as many Palestinian prisoners as possible – mainly kids, women, ill people and of course, Palestine’s leaders.”


Post-election incertitude


Last week’s elections – which will result in a coalition government - have left the Israeli political landscape somewhat blurred. Ramahi says the time is ripe for negotiating a prisoner exchange.


“Now the situation is not clear - who will be prime minister - so Hamas is manoeuvring very intelligently and not so worried. They are in a comfortable political position,” he said.


“I believe that Mr Olmert is ready to do many things for his personal reputation – I mean as outgoing PM, he hopes to free the soldier before leaving, mainly for personal reasons and his party - but is he capable of convincing other Israelis?”

Who will cave first?


Gil Mihaely, columnist at Israeli publication ‘Yediot Ahronot’, says a decision over the soldier’s fate is imminent.


“I think a decision will soon be taken. The question is: who will cave first? Will it be Israel, giving in to international pressure to open up crossing points, or Hamas who, faced with a lack of means and the anger of Gaza’s people, will be forced to free Shalit in return for the opening up of the blockades?,” says Mihaely.


Mihaely adds that Hamas giving up its prized pawn could be doubly good news for Israel: “Shalit’s release could have a euphoric effect on current coalition talks. People would be less tense and that could enable a more open government.”





Date created : 2009-02-16