Israel will not seek to arrest or harm the prisoners it is releasing in the Gilad Shalit exchange deal unless they revert to terrorism, senior Egyptians officials told the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper Saturday.
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The officials said talks on the deal's details were still being discussed Saturday in Cairo, and that after Shalit returns home, Israel is expected to ease its blockade on the Gaza Strip. But they said any such move by Israel also depends on the conduct of Hamas, which rules the territory.
On Friday, the head of Hamas' Damascus-based political bureau, Khaled Meshal, wrapped up a round of talks in the Egyptian capital and returned to Syria. He met with officials including Egyptian intelligence chief Murad Muwafi.
Senior Egyptian officials who mediated between Israel and Hamas on the deal told Haaretz it was nearly a miracle that Egyptian intelligence was able to bring the parties to an agreement. They said they knew with certainty that Shalit was in good health.
"It involved 64 months of intensive negotiations, and we handled most of it, other than the period of the German mediator. And even then, we remained in the picture," an Egyptian intelligence source said.
"The same principles that we presented at the beginning of the negotiations remained to this day - the number to be released and the split between the two stages. The dramatic change occurred mainly around the concession by Hamas and Israel on the VIP prisoners and those that were to be deported."
According to the official, "Israel in fact agreed to release 40 of the 70 prisoners that it had adamantly refused to let go, after Hamas submitted an extensive list of heavyweight prisoners from which Israel would choose. And Hamas, for its part, agreed that those prisoners would be deported."
Egyptian intelligence officials told Haaretz that the shift in Hamas' position was closely tied to two developments. One was the reconciliation between Hamas and the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority, which changed the rules of the game.
"We told the Israelis and the Americans, if there's a Palestinian reconciliation, it will change everything completely. It will also affect the Shalit issue," an Egyptian official said.
The second major factor touched on the unrest in Syria, which has brought the regime to the brink of collapse. "Of course the events in Syria influenced Hamas' willingness to proceed with national reconciliation," he said. But the organization has no plans to move its political headquarters from Damascus to Cairo. It simply will not happen, the Egyptians said.
The officials said they put pressure on both sides during the talks, telling Ahmed Ja'abari, the head of Hamas' military wing, that he should forget any notion that Israel would agree to all of Hamas' demands. Similar comments were made to Israeli negotiator David Meidan. The Israelis were told there was a golden opportunity to wrap up a deal but the situation could change dramatically.
For its part, Hamas tried to dig in its heals in insisting on the release of Marwan Barghouti, the high-profile former Fatah official who is imprisoned in Israel for his involvement in terror offenses, but Meidan insisted that Barghouti not be included in any deal. The shift in the Israeli position related to the deportation of Palestinian prisoners. "From the moment Hamas agreed that the dangerous prisoners would be deported, it became much less problematic for Israel," an Egyptian official said.
The Egyptians said most of the meetings over a deal took place at the headquarters of the Egyptian intelligence service. The Egyptians assessed the situation after meeting with Israeli and Hamas officials and then made new suggestions.
Yesterday several websites with ties to Hamas reported on the negotiations from Hamas' perspective, including the contention that Hamas conducted the talks according to Hezbollah's principles on how negotiations with Israel should be carried out.
Hezbollah reportedly provided the guidelines to Hamas just a week after Shalit's abduction in 2006. But this has not been confirmed and some details in the website reporting are clearly inaccurate.