Carter: I Believe Gilad Shalit Is Alive

Former U.S. president meets Hamas leader Haniyeh, says Gazans being treated like animals.

"I got the impression that Gilad Shalit is alive and well," said Tuesday former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, following a meeting with the father of the abducted Israel Defense Forces soldier, Noam Shalit.

Gilad Shalit was kidnapped by Gaza militants in a cross border raid in 2006, and his parents have received no sign of life from him in over a year.

Following their meeting, Noam Shalit said that he "didn't hear anything new about Gilad."

The two met after Carter visited the Gaza Strip earlier Tuesday, and gave Hamas leaders a letter addressed to the captive soldier from his parents. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said after his meeting with Carter that "the organization welcomes all efforts to finalize the Shalit affair."

Haniyeh added that the militant Hamas movement, whose charter calls for the establishment of an Islamic state in all of historic Palestine, would be "prepared to accept a state in the territories occupied by Israel in 1967."

Haniyeh, who made the announcement at a joint news conference in Gaza City with Carter, did not say whether this would only be as part of a long-term truce with Israel, as Hamas has previously proposed, or whether it meant Hamas was giving up on its demand for Palestinian sovereignty from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River.

Nor did he say whether this meant Hamas was finally giving in to demands to recognize Israel's right to exist.

"We are pushing towards the dream of having our independent state with Jerusalem as its capital," he said.

"If there is a real project that aims to resolve the Palestinian cause on establishing a Palestinian state on 1967 borders, under full Palestinian sovereignty, we will support it," he continued.

Carter told reporters that solving the Israel-Palestinian conflict in accordance with the two-state solution, with Jerusalem as the joint capital of the two states, was the best method of achieving a comprehensive and lasting peace.

The president had earlier expressed dismay while inspecting the devastation caused by Israel's 22-day offensive in Gaza last winter.

"I have to hold back tears when I see the deliberate destruction that has been raged against your people," he told reporters at the destroyed International American School in the northern Gaza Strip town of Beit Lahia, hit in an Israeli airstrike.

"Tragically, the international community largely ignores the cries for help, while the citizens of Gaza are treated more like animals than human beings," he said when he addressed the graduation ceremony of the UNRWA Human Rights program.

The former president called for reconciliation between both the two leading rival Palestinian parties, Hamas, which rules Gaza, and the secular Fatah party of West Bank-based President Mahmoud Abbas, and between Israelis and Palestinians.

The road to peace, reconstruction and ending the suffering could only go "through Palestinian national unity," he said, adding he felt "sad" when he heard about Palestinian brothers killing and arresting each other in the West Bank and Gaza.

In 2007, Hamas, which defeated the secular Fatah party of moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in parliamentary elections a year earlier, seized sole control of Gaza by violently ousting security forces of the western-backed Abbas.

The U.S. and European Union barred official talks with Hamas, demanding it first recognize Israel's right to exist, renounce violence and honor Israeli-Palestinian peace agreements.

Carter arrived in the Hamas-ruled coastal enclave earlier Tuesday for rare talks with leaders of the otherwise internationally shunned radical Islamist movement.

Entering through the Israeli-controlled Erez crossing, north of Gaza City, his convoy immediately proceeded to north-east Gaza to inspect the damage of Israel's December 27-January 18 offensive, launched in bid to curb rocket attacks from the strip.

A Hamas security source meanwhile said Israel briefly closed the Erez crossing point Tuesday after explosives were found near the Palestinian side of the crossing, shortly after Carter entered Gaza.

The source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said "the explosives were found on the route that Carter had passed when he entered Gaza this morning." Carter was due to leave Gaza using the same road later Tuesday afternoon.