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Middle east

Divided Israeli cabinet makes offer on Shalit release

Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2009-12-22

Israel will pursue a deal to ensure the release of Franco-Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, held in Gaza Strip for three years, despite divided opinions among the Israeli cabinet during late night talks on the issue.

AFP - Israel made its latest offer in prisoner swap talks with Hamas on Tuesday after holding marathon talks over a deal that would see hundreds of Palestinians freed in return for a captured soldier.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held five rounds of talks with a team of six senior ministers in less than 48 hours on the conditions of the swap for Staff Sergeant Gilad Shalit, held in the Gaza Strip for more than three years.

At the end of the talks, the premier's office said in a laconic statement that Netanyahu instructed his pointman in the German-mediated talks, Hagai Hadas, on how to proceed in the talks.

"The prime minister and the ministers have given instructions to the team of negotiators on continuing efforts with a view to Gilad Shalit returning to his home safe and sound," it said, without elaborating.

According to Israeli and Palestinian officials, Israel would set free 450 militants, including many involved in deadly attacks on Israeli, in exchange for Shalit, who was captured in a cross-border raid near Gaza in June 2006.

A additional 500 prisoners would be released at a later stage. There are currently some 8,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

Shalit's parents and dozens of activists supporting and opposing the deal held raucous protests outside the prime minister's office throughout the marathon talks that ended in the early hours of Tuesday.

Netanyahu met on Monday Shalit's parents, who had made an impassioned plea for ministers to agree to a swap.

"I am not pessimistic but nor am I optimistic," father Noam Shalit told reporters after the meeting.

In a letter on Sunday, Shalit's parents implored the government to do all it could to free their son, 23, who was seized by Gaza militants in June 2006.

"We believe that the next few days are fateful for our beloved son Gilad," Noam and Aviva Shalit wrote to the premier. "We watch the actions of the government of Israel with deep trepidation and great hope."

The ministers were reportedly deadlocked, with three in favour of accepting Hamas's latest proposal, three against and Netanyahu undecided but leaning toward opposition, media reported.

The premier insists that no militants convicted of involvement in deadly attacks against Israeli civilians be allowed to return to the West Bank, and instead be deported to Gaza or a third country, an official told AFP.

Speculation has mounted in Israel over the past several weeks that the Jewish state and Hamas may be approaching an agreement after months of mediation by Germany, which has a history of successful mediation efforts for prisoner exchanges between Israel and Lebanon's Hezbollah militia.

Prior to the involvement of the German mediator, Egypt had tried for months to negotiate an agreement, but with no success.

Both Israel and Hamas have imposed censorship on comments on the negotiations over Shalit, who has become a cause celebre in the Jewish state that has a history of freeing prisoners for its soldiers or their bodies.

But there is also strong opposition within the country to releasing people convicted of some of the deadliest suicide bombings against civilians inside Israel.

Hamas and two smaller Palestinian militant groups captured Shalit in June 2006 when they tunneled into Israel out of Gaza and attacked an army post, killing two soldiers.

Date created : 2009-12-22


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