Hamas's sudden thrust to place the Gilad Schalit issue back on center stage shows the organization is feeling intense pressure to "deliver" something significant for the Palestinians following their violent takeover of Gaza, senior government officials said Tuesday. "Hamas has taken over Gaza but can't stand and deliver anything," the officials said. "This is their only card. And they are coming under pressure to use it to bring about the release of Palestinian prisoners." Analyses:
Listening between the lines
Pawns in a Palestinian power play
The pressure on Hamas is now even greater, according to the officials, because of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's decision announced at Sham e-Sheikh on Monday to unilaterally release 250 Fatah prisoners. Olmert said he will bring the decision to the cabinet on Sunday.
Government sources said that the cabinet would be asked to vote on the prisoner release and would draw up the criteria governing which prisoners were to be freed. Olmert said that only Fatah prisoners "without blood on their hands" would be released.
Once the cabinet draws up the criteria, security officials - not the government ministers - will come up with the names of those to be released. No timetable has yet been set for the release.
Hamas, meanwhile, continued its apparent pressure to push through a prisoner exchange, with senior Hamas official Osama al-Mizayni saying Tuesday that Schalit has still not recovered from the wounds he sustained during his capture, adding that there was no doubt the soldier required medical treatment.
Noam Schalit speaks with Hamas
In an interview with Islamic Jihad Radio, al-Mizayni went on to say that Schalit was being held in an isolated place without the conditions conducive for recovery.
Defense Ministry officials said that major differences remained between Israel and Hamas over both the number and type of prisoners to be released in a swap for Schalit.
On Monday, marking a year since Schalit's kidnapping, his voice was heard for the first time in an audiotape released by Hamas in which the abducted soldier called on Israel to work for his release. He also said his health was deteriorating and he was in need of prolonged hospitalization.
The officials said Tuesday that while Hamas seemed to claim responsibility for Schalit in the release of the recording on Monday, in reality the terror group was incapable of independently releasing the soldier, whose fate was in the hands of the Popular Resistance Committees and a number of other radical clans.
"Hamas is only in a position to negotiate with Israel but will not be making the final decision whether Schalit is released or not," one official explained. "In the end, once Israel agrees to the deal, Hamas will go to the captors and request that Schalit be released."
The officials said that several key components to the deal - particularly the number of prisoners as well as their identity - were unacceptable to Israel. Among the prisoners Hamas has asked be released are the group's entire terror leadership from the West Bank, the officials said.
Their release, the officials warned, would counter Israeli efforts to strengthen Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and enable Hamas to reestablish its military wing in the West Bank.
"It took us years to arrest these people," said one official. "To let them out would also counter everything Israel is trying to do to with Abbas in the West Bank."
Likud head Binyamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, told a Jewish Agency assembly Tuesday that as a former prime minister, he was not going to interfere with the government's decisions regarding negotiations over the release of Schalit.
"I am aware of the sensitivity of the subject," Netanyahu said.
He did say, however, that Olmert's decision to release 250 prisoners was the wrong message at the wrong time. He said that the decision would hurt Abbas, and that "giving them guns and releasing their prisoners is a big mistake."
Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said following a meeting with visiting Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer Tuesday that she supported Olmert's decision to release the prisoners.
Livni also said Olmert told her of his intention before he announced it at the Sharm summit.