In his first public appearance since the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit, Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal contradicted reports circulated over the past few days by Palestinian and Egyptian sources that Hamas would soften its demands for the release of all security prisoners currently in custody in Israel.
At a press conference in Damascus, Mashaal said that Hamas would only free kidnapped IDF Cpl. Gilad Shalit if Israel released Palestinian security prisoners, Israel Radio reported.
Mashaal insisted that Shalit would be kept alive and treated as a prisoner of war.
Mashaal also accused Israel and the United States of providing the "ugliest example of terrorism" in their dealings with the Palestinians, saying that Israel was breaking international law. He criticized the West for keeping silent on the Israeli offensive to free a captured Israeli soldier.
"The Palestinian people are facing consecutive strikes by the Zionist, aggressive and terrorist entity," Mashaal said.
"Today, Israel is really terrorizing our people ... Israel and America, which talked too much about this terrorism in past are the worst, severest and ugliest examples of terrorism."
"The American administration shoulders the responsibility for what is happening on the land of Palestine: the humanitarian catastrophe, the strikes against the infrastructure," he said.
"Israel is violating international law," Mashaal said, "But the world is only worried about the soldier."
Mashaal blamed Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who has refused to negotiate a prisoner exchange, for prolonging the crisis, and said he was bent on destroying the elected Palestinian government, which Hamas leads.
"I do not exaggerate when I say that Olmert and his hostile policies are holding Gilad Shalit. He shoulders the responsibility for what is happening to him.
"The Palestinian people are united on insisting that the (Israeli) soldier be traded for (Palestinian) prisoners in Israeli jails," he told a news conference, reiterating what his aides have said since the soldier was taken.
"We say to the world that we as a true people and movement do not forget our prisoners," he said.
Mashaal blamed Israel for the collapse of Egyptian, Qatari and European mediation efforts to solve the crisis over the captured Israeli soldier.
"These efforts hit snags over Israel's insistence on the release of the Israeli soldier and its refusal to release Palestinian prisoners," he said.
"This is not a solution ... We don't want escalation. We are for a peaceful, quiet resolution."
"The solution is simple: an exchange. But Israel refuses that," he said, adding that the Israelis are "under an illusion" if they think that by escalating their offensive they will win the soldier's release.
Earlier Monday, the London-based Al-Hayat
reported that while Israel has not changed its official rejection of a cease-fire with Hamas, negotiations were being conducted through back channels for the release of Shalit
. Egyptian sources told the newspaper that Israel would be willing to commit to a withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, stop targeted killings, and release prisoners in exchange for Shalit's safe release and an end to Kassam rocket fire.
Meanwhile, Palestinian sources Monday had indicated that the Hamas leadership was prepared to accept a deal for Shalit's release, under which Hamas would release the soldier and stop firing Kassam rockets at Israel. Israel, for its part, would end its recent military operations in the Gaza Strip and stop targeted killings. Also, Israel would guarantee the release of all the Hamas ministers and parliament members who were arrested following Shalit's abduction, and free some 1000 security prisoners by the end of 2006.
Mashaal scoffed at an Israeli threat to assassinate him, saying he had survived an Israeli attempt on his life nine years ago.
"Death is in God's hands. Nine years after the assassination attempt, I consider myself to have lived an additional bonus life," he said. "I am yearning to meet God. Israel is threatening me with something I like."
Bristling with determination, Mashaal, who wore the Palestinian checkered scarf draped over his shoulders, quickly added: "They will never be able to win from me any minor concession."
With Khaled Abu Toameh