Dekel now free to 'focus' on Schalit

Hamas: Prisoner won't see light until Israel accepts our demands; Palestinians celebrate in Gaza.

Abbas 248.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Abbas 248.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Intensive negotiations for the release of kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit, which were supposed to begin soon after the truce went into effect in the Gaza Strip last month, are likely to begin "in a few weeks," Egyptian sources said Wednesday. "Egypt will do its utmost to finish the deal, and we hope that what happened today [the swap for Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser] will ease the process," one source said. Israeli negotiator Ofer Dekel, who had been focusing in the last few days on the swap with Hizbullah, will now be free to focus on a Schalit deal, according to the sources. The Rafah crossing between Gaza and Sinai would remain closed until the Schalit deal moved forward, the Egyptian sources said. Despite Hamas rhetoric to the contrary, Israeli officials said, the organization was unlikely to up the "price" for Schalit as a result of Wednesday's swap, because of an interest in getting the Rafah crossing opened, and also out of a concern that Israel might again close the crossings between Gaza and Israel if no progress was made in the negotiations. Hamas, diplomatic officials said, also wanted to show that not only Hizbullah, but it, too, could bring about the release of prisoners. The Palestinians were united Wednesday in praising the prisoner exchange between Israel and Hizbullah, dubbing it a historic victory. They also heaped praise on Lebanese prisoner Samir Kuntar, who killed four people in 1979, and Dalal Mughrabi, the Fatah woman who led the 1978 Coastal Road Massacre that claimed the lives of 36 people. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza took to the streets to celebrate the prisoner deal. Chanting slogans in support of Hizbullah, many distributed candy and pledged to continue the fight until all Palestinian prisoners were freed. Palestinians also demonstrated in support of Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who has been charged with genocide in the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who is currently visiting Malta, welcomed the prisoner swap and sent greetings to Kuntar. Abbas's Fatah party organized a rally in Ramallah to celebrate the release of Kuntar and the return of Mughrabi's remains. "This is an historic victory over Israeli arrogance," said Ahmed Abdel Rahman, a top Fatah official and adviser to Abbas. He described Kuntar as a "big struggler" and Mughrabi as a "martyr who led one of the greatest freedom fighters' operations in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict." On this "important" day, Abdel Rahman said, Fatah "salutes Hizbullah and its leaders and fighters." Fahmi Za'arir, a Fatah spokesman in the West Bank, said his party was proud of all those who sacrificed their lives for the Palestinian "revolution and people." He described the attacks carried out by Mughrabi and Kuntar as heroic and legendary. In Gaza City, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh called on Israel to release Palestinians serving life terms in return for Schalit. He described the prisoner swap with Hizbullah as a "victory for those who remain steadfast and refuse to make concessions." Haniyeh said Hamas sought an "honorable" deal that would see the release of "thousands" of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails. Hamas's representative in Lebanon, Osama Hamdan, said the release of Kuntar, "who killed Israelis," was a significant precedent that would be used in the negotiations over Schalit. "The release of Kuntar will pave the way for the release of a large number of our prisoners who, according to Israel, have blood on their hands," he said. "This means that those who killed Israelis will also be released." Hamdan said the talks over the release of Schalit were stuck because Hamas wanted to first make sure that all the border crossings to the Gaza Strip were reopened. Izzadin Kassam, Hamas's military wing, said Schalit "would never see the light until all our just demands have been met." The group said the deal with Hizbullah proved that the "option of jihad and resistance" was the most effective way to deal with Israel. It said the "release of Kuntar and his friends showed that Israel understands only the language of force." Schalit's father, Noam, spoke briefly to the media on Wednesday afternoon as he stood outside the Goldwasser home in Nahariya. "We have come to comfort the family," he said, standing alongside his wife, Aviva. The end of this kidnapping had no bearing on his son's situation, he said. But members and friends of the Goldwasser family linked the two. Miki Leibowich, a friend of Ehud Goldwasser, said the return of the two reservists in coffins should be "a wake-up call for everyone," especially the government, to bring Schalit home. "It shows us how this [Schalit's story] could end and we hope that it won't end that way," he said. Ehud Goldwasser's father-in-law, Omri Avni, said, "We will not leave Gilad there [in Gaza]. When we're ready we will join Schalit's family and together we will bring Gilad home." Tovah Lazaroff contributed to this report.