Ofer Dekel, the government's chief coordinator for prisoner deals, departs for Cairo Thursday to renew indirect talks with Hamas over a swap for abducted Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit.
Israel believes Egyptian pressure may cause Hamas to drop its demands that Israel release terrorists convicted of carrying out major attacks against Israelis in return for freeing Shalit. These demands have so far thwarted the deal.
Egypt had pledged to take an active part in talks with Hamas, if Israel agreed to a truce that did not include a prisoner swap for Shalit.
Shalit was abducted by militants two years ago in a cross-border raid.
In Cairo, Dekel is set to meet with Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman. Meanwhile, a Hamas delegation will arrive in the Egyptian capital to hold talks with Israel via Egyptian diplomatic channels.
Both Israel and Hamas have agreed that some 450 Palestinian prisoners will be included in the swap for Shalit. Israel will first release the prisoners, after which Shalit will return to Israel via Egypt.
Israel has rejected Hamas demands that it release 70 prisoners who are Israeli Arabs or residents of East Jerusalem. In addition, Israel is reluctant to release terrorists involved in bombings that killed dozens and wounded hundreds of civilians in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Netanya.
Hamas also insisted on the release of Lebanese citizen Samir Kuntar, who killed four people in a Nahariya terror attack, but Israel said Kuntar is part of a separate deal with Hezbollah, which abducted IDF troops Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev. So far, only 71 prisoners on Hamas' list have been approved by Israel.
Meanwhile, Hamas denied claims that Egypt had agreed to open the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Sinai only if a deal is reached for Shalit's release.
"Shalit will not see the light of day if our prisoners don't," said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri.
As talks are set to begin in Cairo, hundreds of protesters and Shalit's family members gathered outside the Jerusalem residence of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, calling on him to expedite talks ensuring the release of the abducted soldier.
His father, Noam Shalit, told the crowd that the time has come to end empty declarations: "Gilad is being held alone, in a nightmare of continuing darkness, cut off from all contact with the outside world. The time has come for decisiveness and subversion. You [the government] sent him there, and it is your obligation to bring him back."
Addressing Olmert directly, Shalit said: "You, Mr. Prime Minister, had two full years for negotiating, for bargaining, for examing the options, even to talk to Hamas. With indescribable clumsiness, you have not managed to work for my son's release. Decision time has come - it's now or never."
Noam Shalit also rebuked former IDF chief Moshe Ya'alon, who earlier this week said prisoner swaps must not be signed at all costs.
"Nobody has the moral right to determine the fate of a captive soldier, not politicians, not an enterpriser, and not a retired army chief," Shalit said. "He should try putting himself in my place."
The Shalit family's lawyer on Tuesday wrote a letter of appeal to Attorney General Menechem Mazuz and to government ministers, calling on the cabinet to meet within 48 hours, before the border crossings to the Gaza Strip are reopened as part of a cease-fire deal.
The appeal came after the High Court of Justice on Monday rejected the family's petition against Olmert, the political security cabinet, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, demanding clarification on why the Gaza truce was sealed without a deal on Gilad's release.
The Shalit family had asked the court to order the government not to implement the cease-fire agreement with Hamas in Gaza before their son's release. According to the Shalits, cabinet members were misled into thinking the agreement on Gaza linked Gilad's release to the opening of the Gaza border crossings.
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