Friday, February 20, 2009

Hamas refuses to free Israeli soldier in return for lifting Gaza blockade

• Leader accuses Israel of backtracking over truce
• Corporal's fate linked to release of Palestinians

* Ian Black in Damascus
* The Guardian, Friday 20 February 2009

Hamas has flatly rejected Israel's demand that it free a captive soldier in return for lifting the blockade of the Gaza Strip. The Palestinian movement called instead for international pressure on Israel to force the borders open to relieve the humanitarian crisis after last month's war.Mousa Abu Marzook, the deputy leader of Hamas, accused Israel of backtracking over a truce agreement and warned that Corporal Gilad Shalit would only be released in return for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails. "We will not change our position," he told the Guardian in Damascus yesterday.

On Wednesday Israel's security cabinet agreed to maintain the blockade and to hold back from any truce until the release of Shalit, who was captured in June 2006 near the Gaza boundary fence. Until then it seemed a new truce was imminent.

Hamas and Egypt, which is mediating between the Palestinians and Israelis, had been treating the two issues as separate. But Ehud Olmert, Israel's outgoing prime minister, has been pressing to put Shalit at the heart of any deal. Olmert has just weeks left in office following this month's elections and is keen to secure the soldier's freedom before his term is up.

"Israel and Egypt and Hamas have known for two years that the Shalit file is completely separate from other issues," protested Abu Marzook, just back in the Syrian capital from the truce talks in Cairo. "We are ready to start negotiating about Shalit, but the issue is not linked to any other as far as we are concerned. This is not acceptable to us."

The soldier is believed to be alive but his whereabouts are unknown and he has not been seen by the International Red Cross. "It's good that they [the Israelis] don't know where he is, otherwise they would have killed him," he claimed.

Abu Marzook signalled however that fresh information about Shalit might be provided if Israel moved Palestinian prisoners being held in solitary confinement to normal cells, released unwell female prisoners and published information on the Hamas fighters Imad and Adel Abdullah, said to have been abducted by Israeli forces.

He said contacts between Hamas and European and US representatives had multiplied since the war, despite Hamas being formally designated as "terrorist" by the US and EU over its refusal to recognise Israel, renounce violence and abide by interim peace agreements. "There's been a big change since the war. But a lot of the people we've met have asked us to keep the talks confidential."

Hamas has sent a letter to President Barack Obama via US senator John Kerry who yesterday visited Gaza, the BBC reported. There was no information about the letter's contents.

Abu Marzook welcomed Obama's appointment of George Mitchell as special envoy for Middle East peace, describing the former senator as a "non-Zionist American representative" who had criticised Israeli settlements and helped to broker peace between Britain and the IRA. But despite hints of a potential shift in Washington, there was no sign that Mitchell would meet Hamas; he failed even to visit Syria on his first regional tour this month.

Abu Marzook said Hamas favoured reconciliation talks with Fatah, led by the western-backed Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, in the West Bank. Ending internal divisions is seen as key to lifting the Gaza blockade, enforced since the Islamist movement won elections in 2006, and tightened the following summer.

The 22-day war, which Israel launched with the aim of halting Palestinian rocket fire, killed at least 1,300 Palestinians, many of them civilians, destroyed about 5,000 homes and ruined much of Gaza's already rickety infrastructure. But it was a Palestinian victory because Israel failed to achieve its goals, argued Abu Marzook.

"Now there is global support for Hamas and not just in the Arab and Muslim worlds," he said. "This is a moral judgment against Israel. Israel has had moral support and legitimacy since the second world war and its propaganda has described Hamas as a terrorist group. There's been a real change on those two points - but this mass support has not managed to break the blockade of Gaza."

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