Barak: Schalit release more likely now

Defense minister anticipates "difficult decisions"; FM tells EU "Gaza crisis won't end without Gilad."

survey.gaza.war.2009.results (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Thursday said that Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip has increased the chances for reaching a deal that will bring about the release of captive soldier Gilad Schalit in the near future. While noting that it was best not too talk about the matter, Barak stressed that freeing Schalit was a top priority and that Israel was constantly working to ensure his release. "Nothing is closer to our hearts, we were constantly dealing with this issue during the operation, there wasn't a day that this was not on my table; our best people are working on this every day," he said. Despite his assessment that a deal could be reached shortly, Barak said that "Jerusalem, but not only Jerusalem, will have to make difficult decisions" in order to bring about Schalit's release from captivity. Earlier, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told her counterparts at the European Union in Brussels that "as long as Gilad Schalit remains in the hands of Hamas, it will be impossible to solve the crisis in the Gaza Strip." Speaking to the press, Livni said she convinced the Europeans that having a "durable and sustainable cease-fire also means a full cessation of the smuggling of weapons" into Gaza. She said that she and the Europeans reached "an understanding" that it is important that the smuggling of weapons into Gaza be stopped. The foreign minister told reporters that she regretted the loss of civilian lives in Gaza but blamed Hamas for operating from highly populated areas, calling the war against Hamas a "war against terror, not against Palestinians." Karel Schwarzenberg, the Czech foreign minister and the meeting's chairman, said at a joint news conference after the three-hour meeting that Livni reassured the EU of Israel's commitment to "effective humanitarian aid in the Gaza Strip." British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said the talks produced a "strong" discussion at which the Europeans insisted Israel must make it possible for humanitarian aid to reach Palestinians in the stricken Gaza area. "It's absolutely necessary to say we need to open the borders. We [the 27 EU nations] were all united in that," said French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner. The EU is ready to send monitors back to the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt provided the Gaza cease-fire is maintained, officials said. That mission began in 2005 and oversaw the crossing of 444,000 people during an 18-month period. It was suspended in June 2007 after Hamas seized control of Gaza. Egypt has largely kept the crossing closed since Hamas seized power. The EU foreign ministers will meet in Brussels with their counterparts from Egypt, Jordan, Turkey and the Palestinian Authority on Sunday. Israel is hoping for a deal committing the EU to contribute forces, ships and technology to anti-smuggling operations. EU officials said it was too early for that, and stressed that providing humanitarian relief and efforts to secure a lasting cease-fire were their top priorities.