Security beefed up at Gaza-Egypt border ahead of Shalit transfer 28Nov09 November 29, 2009

by Barak Ravid and Avi Issacharoff  -  Haaretz -  28 November 2009


Voice of Palestine radio quoted Egyptian sources on Saturday as saying that in an unusual move, security around the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt has been beefed up, speculating that the added security could signal the imminent transfer of captive Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit from Gaza into Egypt.

Shalit was captured by Gaza militants in a cross-border raid in 2006 and has been held in captivity for over three years. Hamas, the rulers of the Gaza Strip, have demanded the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners jailed in Israel in exchange for Shalit’s freedom.

According to the Egyptian sources, “this is an unusual move indicating that the kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit will be handed over to Cairo very soon.”

The sources also said that when Shalit is transferred from Gaza into Egypt he will be examined by Red Cross medical teams as well as Israeli and French teams, in addition to the German mediator. Israel will simultaneously free 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, the sources said.

Senior Hamas officials in Damascus told the Palestinian radio station that the organization has agreed in principle to the compromise presented by the German mediator, Channel 10 reported. “We can begin the practical arrangements immediately,” one of the officials said.

On Friday, Fox News reported that the prisoner exchange deal was close to completion, and that it will likely be carried out next week.

Sources said Friday that talks aimed at advancing the deal would resume on Monday, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returns from his trip to Germany and the Muslim holiday of Id al-Adha concludes.

According to Fox, Egyptian sources said that Hamas has yet to respond to Israel’s latest objections, but that the latest developments indicate that the differences between the two sides have significantly narrowed.

A major sticking point, the report continued, is a disagreement over where Palestinian prisoners from East Jerusalem would be deported to once they are released in the exchange.

“What we are seeing now is the end game,” Fox News quoted a source close to the negotiations as saying. Both sides, however, also expressed caution that a final agreement is very close, but has not yet been concluded.

Arab media on Thursday reported significant progress in the talks to free the soldier. Senior Hamas officials, namely the heads of Hamas’ Damascus-based political bureau, did not say the talks have failed but that a number of clauses in the German mediator’s proposal were problematic.

Senior Hamas officials said Thursday that the talks had hit a snag over some of the Palestinian prisoners the Islamic group wants freed, including Marwan Barghouti and Ahmad Sa’adat.

Israel also objects to freeing Israeli Arab prisoners as well as several Hamas military wing leaders. Another issue yet to be settled is Israel’s demand to deport almost 100 of the 450 “heavy” prisoners set to be released in the deal.

The Arab media does not describe these issues as categorical demands, but as points to be sorted out with the help of the German mediator.

Hamas is demanding, among other the prisoners, the release of Ibrahim Hamad, head of the group’s military wing in the Ramallah area, Abdallah Barghouti, a bomb engineer, and Abbas a-Sayad, the Hamas head in Tul Karm who planned the 2002 massacre during Passover in Netanya’s Park Hotel. These three prisoners are considered responsible for the murder of hundreds of Israelis.

Other names mentioned in the Arab media are Hassan Salame, who was involved in planning the suicide bus bombings in the mid ’90s, and Jamal Abu al-Hijla, head of Hamas in Jenin, who was convicted of taking part in planning and funding several suicide attacks during the second intifada.

Another key figure is senior Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti. Vice Premier Silvan Shalom said earlier this week that Barghouti and Sa’adat, secretary of the Popular Front, would not be freed as part of the Shalit exchange. Over the last two days, Hamas officials have said explicitly that Israel is refusing to release Barghouti.

The Obama administration has in recent weeks pressed Netanyahu to extend good-faith gestures to Abbas, intended to compensate for the predicted blow to Fatah’s popularity in the wake of the prisoner exchange deal.

Netanyahu’s declaration on Wednesday of a 10-month hiatus in settlement construction is not simply a tardy response to Washington’s requests. The U.S. administration will try to present it as an achievement for Abbas as well, despite the Palestinian Authority’s disappointment with East Jerusalem’s exclusion from the building freeze.

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