A spokesman for Hamas' military wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, said that the Islamic group would not settle for a list of 450 Palestinian prisoners Israel will offer to release in exchange for captive Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit, but will rather demand the release of more than 1,000 prisoners, according to a report published Saturday in the London-based Arabic language daily newspaper Asharq al-Awsat.
Shalit has been held captive in the Gaza Strip, ruled by Hamas, since his abduction by militants in June 2006.
The spokesman, Abu Obeida, made his remarks ahead of a planned meeting of an Israeli ministerial panel, headed by Vice Premier Haim Ramon, set to compose a list of prisoners, including those considered as having "blood on their hands", on Sunday. The Israeli list will include 450 names including 70 from Hamas' list who have already been approved for release in accordance with existing criteria, and a certain number of prisoners whose release will be approved after the panel amends the criteria in order to include them. The list will be transferred to Egypt, who will present it to Hamas at a later date.
However, Abu Obeida expressed his indifference to the planned meeting, saying "in principle, we will not discuss any list presented by the Israeli occupation; it must implement the list composed by us. It is not fathomable that a live hostage will be released in exchange for a handful of prisoners."
Initially, Hamas had demanded the release of 450 prisoners, and submitted a list of the specific prisoners it wanted. A few months ago, it raised its demands to 1,000, with the initial 450 to be freed simultaneously with Shalit and the remainder in stages thereafter. It has now upped its demands again.
Hamas recently jacked up the number of Palestinian prisoners it wants Israel to release in exchange for Shalit, from 1,000 to 1,500, a senior government source said.
At a meeting with senior cabinet ministers on Wednesday, both Shin Bet security service chief Yuval Diskin and Ofer Dekel, who was appointed by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to oversee the negotiations, blamed the sudden increase in Hamas' demands on Israel's agreement to a cease-fire with the organization in the Gaza Strip.
Last month's deal with Hezbollah, in which Israel freed terrorist Samir Kuntar and four other Lebanese in exchange for the bodies of two kidnapped soldiers, also hardened Hamas' stance, defense officials said.
A ministerial committee headed by Vice Premier Haim Ramon is slated to discuss the Shalit deal on Sunday, and Olmert has asked it to draft a list of 450 prisoners that Israel would be willing to release in exchange for the soldier. This would be the first time Israel has prepared such a list. Until now, it has merely approved or rejected the names submitted by Hamas.
The Wednesday meeting was attended by Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and senior defense officials. Barak reported on his trip to Cairo the day before, during which he discussed the Shalit deal with Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak and intelligence chief Omar Suleiman.
According to the government source, Egypt told Barak that Hamas is currently demanding 1,500 prisoners in exchange for Shalit.
Both Diskin and Dekel told the ministers that the cease-fire hardened Hamas' stance by eliminating the pressure Israel had been exerting via both military operations and an economic blockade. As a result, Hamas no longers feels any urgency about concluding a deal, they said.
They therefore argued that the only way to conclude the deal was to go back to exerting pressure, even if this endangers the truce. Dekel suggested halting all fuel supplies to Gaza or closing the border crossings that were reopened under the truce.
Barak, in contrast, said Israel had to demonstrate a willingness to move toward Hamas' demands. "We embarked on the truce for Gilad Shalit's sake, and we need to utilize this period to achieve progress in the negotiations," he said. "If we demonstrate more willingness, it could be that Hamas will demonstrate more willingness."
The list the ministerial committee is expected to draft on Sunday will include the 70 prisoners requested by Hamas whose release Israel has already approved, plus an unspecified number of others on Hamas' list whose release is expected to be approved once the cabinet adopts new, more lenient criteria. The remainder will be Israel's choice. Once completed, Israel will ask Egypt to pass the list on to Hamas.
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