Israeli prisoner swap deal not in voting phase yet

13:20, December 24, 2009      

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by David Harris, Geng Xuepeng, Zvi Amitai

Numerous reports in local and world media these days suggested that Israel and Hamas are talking about some of specific details of a prisoner swap deal this week.

The main hurdles currently lying on the road to an agreement reportedly focus on several key Palestinians and a list of about 120 Palestinians that Israelis are demanded to release in exchange for freeing the captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

The fact that both Israeli and Hamas officials are remaining stony silent about the deal and not leaking information to the media is perceived by most analysts as a sign that agreement may well be imminent.

However, sources close to the discussion among Israeli inner cabinet told Xinhua that the deal has not reached a voting phase in Israel, which means even if Israel and Hamas reaches an agreement in the near future, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is still expected to face dramatic debate inside his leading team as well as in the Israeli public.

"BRAIN-STORMING" MEETING AND NEXT

The marathon meetings held by Israeli inner cabinet of seven ministers on Sunday and Monday were just like "brain-storming" discussion and there was no voting process, according to sources close to Netanyahu's office.

During the meetings, Netanyahu told his cabinet colleagues that he is afraid that releasing some of the prisoners demanded by Hamas to the West Bank could break the status quo in the West Bank where it is fairly quiet and few violent attacks against Israelis happen recently, said a source who required to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the issue.

Hamas wants Israel to free up to 1,000 Palestinians in exchange for the captive Israeli soldier, and the Islamic Hamas movement has reportedly presented a list of 450 names in Israeli prisons.

When discussing Hamas' requirement during the meetings, Israeli ministers decided to ask the army to provide with a list of so-called "heavy prisoners" whom Israel demands to be expelled to the Gaza Strip or abroad and not allowed to return to the West Bank, said the source.

The ministers also decided to refuse freeing several Palestinians including the head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) Ahmad Saadat and a top official in the Fatah movement Marwan Barghouti, the source added.

Israel has relayed its response to Hamas through a German mediator, according to local media. "The ball is in Hamas' side now, and Israel is waiting," an Israeli official who declined to be named told Xinhua.

A source close to Hamas said that Hamas officials would meet to make their final decision after receiving Israeli response and he expected that a final decision on the prisoner exchange would be clear by the end of this week.

Israeli officials assumed that for the next few days, Israel and Hamas will bargain on the numbers of the to-be-released Palestinians who will be forced to live in Gaza or exiled from the Palestinian areas, the Israeli source said.

Even if Hamas and Israel reaches an agreement, the agreement has to be handed to Israeli security cabinet for voting and then to the whole cabinet.
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