20th female prisoner in deal released to Gaza

Status of Schalit negoti

gazans gloat schalit 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
gazans gloat schalit 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
The last Palestinian woman to be released as part of the deal to free 20 prisoners in exchange for a video that confirms a sign of life from kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit made her way to the Gaza Strip through the Erez Crossing on Sunday afternoon. Israel released 19 of the women on Friday morning, 18 to the West Bank and one to Gaza. Sunday's release of Ruda Habib came after it turned out that a prisoner released Wednesday was finishing her sentence anyway and would therefore have been released regardless of the deal. On Saturday, despite rampant speculation following the release of the first video showing Schalit to be alive and well, the government was holding its cards close to its chest on the status and future of negotiations for his release. Assessments of when the negotiations will be completed run from immediately, according to a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, to as late as June 2010, according to a foreign official involved in the mediation effort. Negotiations are stalled as the two sides have failed to reach agreement on the release of the 450 security prisoners demanded by Hamas. Israel has approved more than half of the list, but has balked at releasing those convicted in terrorist attacks that resulted in deaths. There is also disagreement over an Israeli demand that the prisoners not be released to the West Bank. Gaza-based Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said on Saturday that a deal was being held up only by the "stubbornness of the Zionist occupation." The two-minute video of Schalit was the first sight Israelis have had of the 23-year-old soldier, and showed him to be in good health. In the clip, Schalit addressed Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his parents, Noam and Aviva, telling them he was being treated well by Hamas, but that he yearned to see his family. Schalit is seen clean-shaven with a fresh haircut, wearing dark green clothes. The prisoner released to Gaza on Saturday, an Islamic Jihad member, was received by Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. She entered Gaza with an 18-month-old boy who was born in prison. Haniyeh pronounced the infant "the youngest Palestinian prisoner." Hamas officials in Gaza called the video-for-prisoners exchange a victory for the Islamist group, saying it demonstrated that it was Hamas, and not its bitter rival Fatah, that brought results for the Palestinians. But Israeli officials over the weekend noted that the released prisoners were all nearing their release dates and were unlikely to constitute security threats. They were low-interest for Israeli security agencies, having failed to complete, or being only minor accessories to, terrorist attacks. Three years and two major military engagements later, officials say, Hamas has only hundreds of dead fighters and a growing political failure in Gaza to show for its continued holding of Schalit. Hamas leaders adopted seemingly contradictory tones over the weekend. While officials in Gaza, including Mahmoud Zahar, celebrated Friday's exchange and said the sides were only weeks away from a final prisoners-for-Schalit deal, Damascus-based political leader Khaled Mashaal said late Friday that the group would capture more IDF soldiers and would eventually witness Israel's destruction. Those who were able to capture Schalit and hold him safely for more than three years are capable of capturing "Schalit and Schalit and Schalit until there was not even one prisoner in the enemy's jails," Mashaal said. The same lack of clarity seemed to be reflected in statements made by the Schalit family over the weekend. Whereas Gilad's mother, Aviva, expressed the hope that the video deal "is the beginning of the end," father Noam said he believed the negotiations could still take years. Noam, who is often briefed by government officials, said that despite Friday's video release there was still no breakthrough in talks. The statement came after he had spoken with both Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. "We're not on the brink of a deal," he told reporters in Mitzpe Hila, outside the Schalit family home, on Friday night. Shortly after viewing the video on Friday, Netanyahu released a statement noting that he had "watched the video" and had spoken with Noam Schalit. According to the statement released by the Prime Minister's Office, "the prime minister believes the importance of the tape is in putting the responsibility for Gilad's health and well-being squarely on Hamas's shoulders." The prime minister said that "even though the release of Schalit is still far away, the video is an encouraging sign." On Friday evening, Netanyahu was briefed by intelligence officials who analyzed the video. Experts formulated an updated assessment of the captive soldier's health and of the conditions in which he is being held, according to Army Radio. Barak spoke with both Noam and Zvi Schalit, Gilad's grandfather, minutes after the family viewed the video at approximately 2 p.m. on Friday, according to a statement issued by Barak's office. The defense minister told the Schalits, "I want to embrace you. Gilad looks healthy, and this fact only further puts into focus my own responsibility and the responsibility of all of us to bring him home." For its part, the international community has called for Schalit's release. A statement issued by the French government over the weekend called for the "immediate, unconditional release of Schalit." Schalit holds dual Israeli-French citizenship and Noam Schalit has been lobbying French President Nicolas Sarkozy to help secure the release of his son. On Saturday, the Schalit family received a supportive call from Sarkozy. Schalit has been held by Hamas for 1,197 days. Yaakov Katz, Jerusalem Post staff, and news agencies contributed to this report.