'Israel Willing to Pay Heavy Price to Free Gilad Shalit - but Not Any Price'

PM addresses mounting pressure to implement prisoner swap, says he has agreed to free 1,000 Palestinian prisoners; Hamas: Main issue is not how many prisoners, but which ones.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday made a special address on the negotiations to free abducted Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit, and said  Israel is willing to pay a heavy price in the negotiations with Hamas, but not any price.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

In a live address to the country, Netanyahu said all Israelis wanted Shalit back safely but past experience showed that many Palestinians released had returned to carry out attacks on Israelis.

Netanyahu said he empathizes with the Shalit family, but "I see, as does every Israeli prime minister, the security of all of the state's citizens. Israel is willing to pay a heavy price for the release of Shalit, but not 'at any price.' This is the truth, and I am saying it now," said Netanyahu, adding that Israel will continue to make every effort to bring Gilad home while maintaining the security of Israel's citizens.

Netanyahu's address comes five days after the family and supporters of Shalit began a protest march from the Shalit's Galilee home to the prime minister's official residence in Jerusalem.

Gilad Shalit was abducted by Gaza militants in a 2006 cross-border raid and has been held in captivity for four years.

In his address to respond to the mounting pressure to implement the prisoner swap, Netanyahu said the decision to free terrorists "is a difficult decision for any government," and went on to describe how prisoners freed in previous swaps committed other acts of terrorism after their release from Israeli prisons.

Netanyahu specifically mentioned the 1985 Jibril swap, in which more than 1,000 prisoners were freed, and the 2004 deal to free Israeli businessman Elhanan Tannenbaum, in which 400 prisoners were released. Netanyahu said that prisoners freed in the Tannenbaum case were responsible for killing 27 Israelis.

Despie this, Netanyahu said he had agreed to the latest offer from Hamas.

"The German mediator's offer, which we agreed to accept, called for the release of 1,000 terrorists. This is the price I am prepared to pay to bring Gilad home. I said yes to the deal and it is ready for immediate implementation," Netanyahu said.

He was referring to a moment last December when a deal and a prisoner exchange appeared imminent but in the end never came about. Media reports at the time spoke of 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Shalit, although there was never official confirmation from the Israeli side.

"But there are prices that I am not prepared to pay and they are not included in this difficult deal," Netanyahu said.

"I am steadfast on two basic principles: The first principle is that dangerous terrorists will not return to the areas of Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] from where they can continue to harm Israel's citizens."

Netanyahu said the freed prisoners could go to Tunisia or the Gaza Strip or any other place, but not to the West Bank because this would afford them access to Israeli cities.

The second sticking point Netanyahu mentioned was "arch-terrorists." They would not be freed as part of the deal, he added.

Hamas said in response the problem was more about who was due for release and not how many prisoners.

"Netanyahu is trying to delude Israeli public opinion and deceive the people. It is not a matter of numbers. It is a question of who will be released," said Ayman Taha, a senior Hamas spokesman.

Hamas insists that out of the 1,000, Israel must release 450 prisoners jailed for violent attacks on Israelis, Taha said. But in past negotiations Israel had rejected most of those named by Hamas in that category.

Officials behind the public campaign for Shalit's release believe that the march will present Netanyahu with the political capital necessary to proceed with the prisoner swap negotiations.

Some 1,500 supporters joined the march on Thursday, which was to reach Hadera by the evening. The numbers of marchers have varied since the protest began on Sunday, but no fewer than 1,000 have joined the Shalit family on its quest to persuade Netanyahu to carry out the prisoner swap.