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Kidnapped IDF soldier Cpl. Gilad Shalit, who is being held in the Gaza Strip, will be released only if Israel agrees to free thousands of Palestinian prisoners, a senior Hamas official announced on Tuesday.
The announcement came as Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas held a closed meeting in Gaza City with PA Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and urged him to release Shalit immediately. The two also discussed the possibility of establishing a national unity government.
Abbas, who arrived in the Gaza Strip on Monday, called on Hamas to release Shalit in return for promises that Israel would free Palestinian prisoners in the future. Abbas suggested that the soldier be handed over to the Egypt, which has been acting as a mediator ever since Shalit was kidnapped by Hamas last June. Egyptian mediators have been trying to persuade Hamas to soften its position, but to no avail.
"Israel must pay a heavy price for its soldier," said Khalil al-Hayeh, head of Hamas's parliamentary list. "We have rejected demands to release the soldier in return for promises that Israel would release our prisoners sometime in the future."
Hayeh said Hamas was "disturbed" by pressure on the kidnappers to release Shalit unconditionally: "To all those who are exerting pressure on us, we say: Enough!" No Palestinian will ever agree to the release of the Israeli soldier without getting anything in return. They know what our conditions are and I don't think that they are hard to fulfill."
At the meeting, Abbas briefed Haniyeh on the outcome of his recent tour of Arab countries and discussed with him the prospects of forming a joint Fatah-Hamas government.
PA officials said after the meeting that there was still no room for optimism regarding the fate of Shalit. They pointed out that while Haniyeh appeared to be flexible on the issue, he clearly does not have influence on the kidnappers.
"Haniyeh wants to resolve the case by tomorrow," one official told The Jerusalem Post. "His problem is that he has no control over the kidnappers and their patrons in Syria and Iran."
Haniyeh, according to another PA official, is also facing opposition inside Hamas over the formation of a national unity government with Fatah. "There are many people in Hamas who simply don't like the idea," he said. "Most of these people are sitting in Damascus and Tehran."
Abdallah Abdallah, a Fatah legislator who heads the political committee of the Palestinian Legislative Council, said on Tuesday that a national unity government is urgently needed in light of the growing challenges to the Palestinians.
"This is the right time for a unity government and Fatah is very keen on the idea," he said. "The new government will face three missions: establishing a joint leadership for the Palestinian resistance groups to launch retaliatory attacks on Israel, tackling the economic crisis and launching a political campaign to gain international support for the Palestinian position."
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