Israel frees another Hamas representative

Release sparks rumors of "secret deal" with Hamas in order to forward Schalit deal; PMO denies rumor.

Gilad Schalit 248.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Gilad Schalit 248.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Another Hamas representative was released from an Israeli prison Wednesday, sparking speculation about an imminent agreement on a prisoner exchange. Issa Ja'bari, who served as minister for local government in the Hamas cabinet, was arrested together with dozens of Hamas figures in the West Bank immediately after the abduction of St.-Sgt. Gilad Schalit near the Gaza Strip in June 2006. Ja'bari is the third Hamas representative to be released from Israeli jail in the past week, after Omar Abdel Razzak, who served as finance minister in the Hamas government, and Muna Mansour, a Hamas legislator. Abdel Razzak was also arrested nearly two years ago, while Mansour was arrested last month in Nablus. Palestinian Authority officials in Ramallah did not rule out the possibility that the release of the three Hamas representatives was part of a "secret deal" between Israel and Hamas. "We don't believe that the three were released by coincidence," the officials told The Jerusalem Post. "Apparently they were released to pave the way for agreement on a prisoner exchange." An official in the Prime Minister's Office said that the release of the Hamas legislators was not connected to any deal for Schalit. Rather, the official said, without knowing the specifics of the individual cases, it was likely that the legislators simply finished their prison terms. "That also happens from time to time," the official added. The PA officials said that contrary to Hamas's assertions, the Islamist movement was continuing to hold indirect talks with Israel on the release of Schalit. "Hamas is lying when it says that it's not conducting negotiations with Israel," they said. "They are talking to Israel through the Egyptians and other Arab parties." A senior Hamas official in Gaza City welcomed the release of the Hamas representatives. However, he would neither confirm nor deny reports about secret negotiations with Israel. "Undoubtedly, the release of the Hamas prisoners will create a better atmosphere for negotiations to reach a prisoner exchange," the Hamas official told the Post. "But I can't tell you if this move is linked to the ongoing Egyptian efforts to reach a prisoner swap agreement." Osama al-Mazini, a top Hamas official who serves as a spokesman on the Schalit issue, said there would be no progress until Israel fulfilled all its commitments under June's cease-fire agreement. "We in Hamas are not children to be duped," he said. "When Hamas signs an agreement, it abides by it. But the Israelis want to deal with us the same way they have been dealing with Mahmoud Abbas's Authority. They want the Palestinians to honor all the agreements while they themselves don't abide by them." Mazini added that Hamas was now seeking guarantees that any agreement it reached with Israel in the future would be fully honored. "We have the impression that the Israelis are never serious about living up to their promises," he said. "So what's the point in reaching an agreement on a prisoner exchange when we know in advance that Israel might not honor it?" Also on Wednesday, Hamas said Egypt's refusal to reopen the Rafah border crossing between Sinai and Gaza was one of the reasons behind the delay in achieving a breakthrough in the talks on Schalit. Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza City, said the continued closure of the Rafah terminal was in violation of understandings reached between his movement and Hamas prior to the cease-fire agreement. "The Egyptians are consolidating the policy of collective punishment," he said. There's no reason why the border crossing should remain closed particularly since Hamas and other Palestinian factions have abided by the cease-fire." Barhoum also criticized the Egyptians for denying permission to a senior Hamas delegation to leave the Gaza Strip on a tour of a number of Arab countries. The delegation, headed by Ahmed Bahr, speaker of the Hamas-dominated parliament, had been invited by parliamentarians in several Arab countries. But the Egyptians have refused to allow the delegation to leave Gaza through Rafah. Herb Keinon contributed to this report.: