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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Israel has not ruled out the possibility of releasing Palestinian prisoners in exchange for kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, Hamas legislator Salah al-Bardaweel said on Sunday.
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But Bardaweel's comments stand in stark contrast to the unequivocal comments made Sunday in the weekly cabinet meeting by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen Dan Halutz, and head of Military Intelligence Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin, who all said that Israel would not release prisoners for Shalit because this would only encourage more and more kidnapping attempts.
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Meanwhile, Hamas's armed wing, Izaddin al-Kassam, on Sunday threatened to attack infrastructure facilities inside Israel, including schools, hospitals and universities. The threat, the first of its kind since Hamas won the parliamentary election last January, was issued in response to continued Israeli military strikes in the Gaza Strip.
"If they continue with these attacks, we will strike at targets in Zionist territory that we have not struck until now," said the organization's spokesman.
The latest threat came as Egypt continued its efforts to resolve the crisis.
It also came as sources in the Gaza Strip revealed that the Palestinian Authority's security forces had, for the first time, begun searching for Shalit in Rafah and Khan Yunis.
The sources said that members of the Preventative Security Service and the General Intelligence Force had secretly deployed hundreds of their men in the streets to try to track down the whereabouts of the solider. They added that some of the security officers had been disguised as Fatah and Hamas militiamen.
Yadlin, however, told the government that the Palestinian Authority security services are doing nothing to look for Shalit.
A top Egyptian diplomat involved in the talks with Hamas over the case of Shalit said Egypt was still waiting to hear from Hamas leaders in Syria and the Gaza Strip about its initiative to resolve the crisis.
The initiative, according to the diplomat, calls for the immediate release of Shalit in return for an Israeli promise to release several hundred Palestinian prisoners in the near future. It also calls for an end to Israel's military action in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and for the release of most of the Hamas ministers and legislators who were arrested last week by the IDF.
The diplomat told The Jerusalem Post that Egypt was expecting to hear from Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, who is based in Syria, in the coming hours.
"Mashaal has promised to study the initiative with the Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip and to give a response by Monday," the diplomat said. He said Mashaal made the promise over the weekend during a phone conversation with a senior Egyptian security official.
"Egypt is determined to resolve the crisis as soon as possible," the diplomat added. "We want a solution that will prevent further violence and bloodshed." He also expressed cautious optimism about the prospects of ending the crisis peacefully. "It's premature to talk about the failure of the negotiations," he said. "There is still room for optimism, although one has to be very careful in such sensitive issues."
Bardaweel, one of the prominent Hamas representatives in the Gaza Strip, claimed that Israel had informed the Egyptian mediators that it did not rule out the possibility of releasing Palestinian prisoners. "Israel wants to release prisoners, but it does not want that to be directly linked to the case of the Israeli soldier," he said.
Bardaweel also praised Egypt's mediation efforts, saying the Egyptians were doing their utmost to avoid more destruction in the region.
Ahmed Bahar, deputy speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, said that the soldier would not be handed back unless Israel accepted the conditions of the captors. "These are the conditions of all the Palestinians, including the families of prisoners and martyrs," he said.
Bahar said Israel's dilemma is that it is facing only two scenarios either to suffer humiliation by accepting the conditions or to launch a military operation that could result in the death of the soldier.
PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas strongly condemned Israel's air raid on the office of Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh on Saturday night as a "real crime." Abbas, who was speaking to reporters during a tour of the destroyed office in Gaza City together with Haniyeh, said: "The world should understand that the destruction of the institutions of the Palestinian people is a real crime."
Following the attack, Abbas and Haniyeh held an urgent meeting in Gaza City to discuss the latest developments surrounding the case of the IDF soldier.
Haniyeh, who later inspected the ruins of his office, said the attack would not influence Hamas's standing.
"This is a policy of arrogance that resembles the rule of the jungle," he told reporters. I call on the international community to intervene to stop the Israeli aggression."
Also on Sunday, Hamas called on the Palestinians to boycott July 4 celebrations planned by the US Consulate General in Jerusalem. Farhat As'ad, a Hamas spokesman, said the Palestinians should boycott the event because of US bias toward Israel. He also urged Palestinian journalists not to cover the celebrations.
Herb Keinon contributed to this report.