Ending the blockade of the Gaza Strip is part of the agreement between Hamas, Egypt and Israel for the return of Gilad Shalit, according to Mahmoud Zahar, one of the leaders of Hamas in Gaza and a member of Hamas' negotiating team in the Shalit deal.
Israel agreed to this long ago, in talks with a German mediator, and it is still part of the agreement, Zahar told Haaretz on Monday.
Zahar, who will be one of the Hamas officials greeting the released prisoners on Tuesday, said there are several other issues the sides also agreed to as part of the deal. For one, families from Gaza will now be allowed to visit their relatives in Israeli prisons. Since Shalit's abduction, such family visits have been banned.
Additionally, in an attempt to increase pressure on Hamas to reach an agreement on freeing Shalit, Israel had stripped Palestinian prisoners of certain privileges and put many of their leaders into solitary confinement. These measures will now be reversed, Zahar said.
Finally, Israel agreed to ease the blockade on Gaza, Zahar said.
Israeli defense officials confirmed that the Shalit agreement marks a turning point in relations between Israel and Hamas. They said that various steps have already been taken to ease the blockade on Gaza in recent months, as part of the unofficial cease-fire between Hamas and Israel.
Now, Israel is evaluating the implications of the Shalit deal for its blockade policy. There are two main possibilities that any future decision to ease the blockade might include. One is to ease restrictions on the movement of people through the Gaza border crossings, and particularly travel from Gaza to the West Bank via Israel. The second is to increase exports of goods from Gaza to Israel and abroad.
There are already very few restrictions on the entry of goods into Gaza from Israel, except for those that can be used to manufacture weapons.
After Shalit's release, Israel will no longer have any excuse to continue the blockade, Zahar said. "This is what representatives of European countries told us when they approached us about releasing Shalit, and the Israelis made this commitment as well," he said.
The deal should send Israel a message that power cannot overcome the drive to free prisoners, Zahar added. The only way to solve the problem of the prisoners is by freeing them, he said, and the Israeli media needs to tell the Israeli public so.
Preparations for receiving the prisoners in Gaza have already been completed, including construction of a big stage for the main ceremony in the center of Gaza City. Hundreds of members of Hamas' military wing have deployed along the entire length of the road that runs from the Rafah crossing, on the Gaza-Egypt border, to Gaza City, since the prisoners will arrive at Rafah via Egypt. The Rafah crossing area has been declared a closed military zone and only 100 VIPs will be allowed entry.
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