Report: Hizbullah talks yield progress

'Al Ayam': PM envoy Ofer Dekel meets Samir Kuntar in prison; PMO denies.

samir kuntar 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
samir kuntar 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A flurry of reports over the weekend had a government envoy speaking with security prisoners to pave the way for a prisoner exchange with Hizbullah and with Hamas. An official in the Prime Minister's Office, however, denied reports late Saturday night that former Shin Bet (Israeli Security Agency) deputy chief Ofer Dekel, the prime minister's appointee for dealings regarding kidnapped soldiers and other captives, met 10 days ago with Lebanese prisoner Samir Kuntar. Kuntar, according to the report in the Palestinian daily Al-Ayyam, said there was real progress on a deal to release kidnapped soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser. The official told The Jerusalem Post that, about a month ago, when Dekel was in the Hadarim Prison, Kuntar tried to engage Dekel in a conversation. Dekel refused to respond and no conversation took place, the official said. A report in another Arab newspaper had Dekel holding talks in recent weeks with senior Hamas members in an Israeli jail, reporting progress on a prisoner swap that could free Cpl. Gilad Schalit, according to a lawyer close to the talks. Al-Ayyam claimed Dekel had met with Kuntar, a Lebanese serving a life sentence for killing the Haran family from Naharyia 30 years ago and whose return Hizbullah has been demanding. Reportedly, Kuntar told Dekel there was real progress on the topic of releasing the two reservists kidnapped on Lebanon-Israel border. The July 2006 event was Israel's catalyst for the Second Lebanon War. According to Al-Ayyam, Dekel told Kuntar the main obstacle for the materialization of a prisoner exchange deal was Hizbullah's demand that Palestinian prisoners also be released. The reported meeting took place in Hadarim Prison in central Israel, where numerous Palestinian prisoners are held, former Fatah general-secretary Marwan Barghouti among them. Reportedly, Dekel met several Palestinian prisoners but insisted on meeting Kuntar, considered one of the senior Lebanese prisoners held in Israel. Al-Ayyam sources said the transfer last week of four Jordanian prisoners held for murdering Israelis to Jordan was tied to progress in the deal to release Regev and Goldwasser, and also Schalit, held for over a year by Hamas terrorists in Gaza. The reason quoted was Jordan's approval to receive its four jailed nationals, as compared with the Hashemite kingdom's refusal to include them in a previous deal during which Elhanan Tannenbaum and the dead bodies of IDF soldiers Adi Avitan, Benny Avraham and Omar Sawayid. Sources reported that a senior German intelligence official, known as "Mayer," was continuing his role as mediator and assisting UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. The contact between the sides reached the stage of names of prisoners and the number of prisoners to be released. Meanwhile, Dekel reportedly met 10 days ago with five members of the Hamas military wing at the same prison, said the lawyer, who represents another inmate and spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to discuss the negotiations with reporters. Miri Eisin, a spokeswoman for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, declined comment on the issue. Israel has said it would shun all members of Hamas. Dekel told the Hamas inmates that progress has been made on a deal to win the release of Schalit, who was captured by Hamas-allied terrorists in June 2006 and is being held in Gaza, the lawyer said. In exchange, Hamas seeks the release of several hundred prisoners, but Israel has balked at meeting the demands. Dekel told the five Hamas prisoners - all of whom are serving life sentences - that some in the group would be able to go home soon, but that others would be sent into exile if a deal goes through, the lawyer said. Dekel first met with the Hamas prisoners about six weeks ago, the lawyer said. Dekel has also visited Egypt, which is mediating between Israel and Hamas. Egyptian officials said Dekel most recently held talks with Egyptian officials about a week ago. Earlier Friday, deputy head of Hamas's political bureau in Syria, Moussa Abu Marzouk, estimated that Israel would eventually accede to the group's demands over the release of Schalit "since it has no other way of securing his freedom." In an interview published on the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt website, Marzouk stressed that Hamas was demanding the release of 350 prisoners whose names had already been handed over to Israel, in addition to imprisoned women and minors. He said it was already agreed that Israel would free the prisoners in three stages but talks were halted after Israel rejected the prisoner list. Meanwhile, Palestinian Authority parliamentarian Ayman Darameh, of Hamas, denied quotes attributed to him earlier that Hamas leaders in Israeli jails were authorized to conduct direct negotiations with Israel over Schalit's release. Darameh said that the interview in the Persian Gulf-based Al-Halij newspaper was conducted by a foreign correspondent and so his comments were "seemingly mistranslated." Darameh told Israel Radio that he had no connection to Hamas's imprisoned leaders, neither with Hamas leaders in Gaza nor to the group's armed wing. He said that he was "very far" from the talks to secure the release of the kidnapped IDF soldier and that all he knew "was the information presented in the media." Similarly, Marzouk also said that only Egypt was authorized to conduct negotiations over a prisoner swap deal and that there were no direct or indirect talks involving any other mediator. Al-Halij had quoted Darameh as saying that the talks were "at the moment in the hands of the Hamas prisoners," adding that there had already been several meetings on the issue between the prisoners and senior Israeli officials. Despite, Darameh's denial, Israel Radio reported that at the beginning of the week, Hamas spokesman in Gaza, Ayman Taha, confirmed that there had been meetings between Israeli officials and leaders of the Hamas prisoners, adding that the aim of the talks was to clarify Hamas's position regarding the Schalit deal. Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.