ISRAEL SUGGESTS RELEASE IF SOLDIER FREED
By SARAH EL DEEB, Associated Press Writer
July 7, 2006
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -
Two weeks into Israel's violent standoff with Hamas,
Israel sent conflicting signals Friday on whether it is prepared to swap Palestinian prisoners for a soldier whose capture
by Palestinian militants has touched off a harsh military campaign.
Israeli troops killed 32
Palestinians in two days of air strikes and artillery barrages, Palestinian officials said. The campaign is aimed at stopping
rocket attacks on Israel and pressuring
the ruling Hamas movement to release the kidnapped soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit.
Israel's public security minister, Avi Dichter, suggested Friday
that Israel is ready to cut a deal that
would fall short of a direct prisoner swap.
Dichter said Israel could free some Palestinian prisoners as a goodwill gesture after Shalit is released
and Hamas stops rocket attacks on Israel.
If there is calm, "Israel will need to, after some time, release prisoners as
a reciprocal gesture," Dichter said. "Israel
knows how to do this. Israel has done
this more than once in the past."
He was referring to previous
prisoner swaps — usually in deals that freed far more Palestinians than Israelis. Privately, Israeli officials have
said they did not rule out talks in Shalit's case, either.
Moderate Palestinian President
Mahmoud Abbas said he has won Israeli assurances that it would reciprocate for Shalit's release by freeing some prisoners,
as well as Hamas politicians it has rounded up in recent days.
Officials close to Prime
Minister Ehud Olmert later said Dichter's statement did not reflect the views of the government and that Israel insists on the soldier's unconditional release. However,
the government did not issue a formal statement distancing itself from the minister.
Israel does not want to be seen as cutting a deal with Hamas militants, but also does not seem to have a way to free the
soldier by force.
Hamas said Friday that Shalit,
seized June 25, is alive and being treated well. It also urged Israel
to negotiate. The Islamic militant group initially demanded the release of hundreds of prisoners, but then scaled back its
demands, seeking freedom for some 150 female inmates and several dozen men serving long sentences.
The internal Israeli debate
came as ground troops backed by tanks pursued militants in the streets of crowded Gaza towns,
and aircraft struck northern Gaza.
Shalit is believed to be
held in southern Gaza, and days after he was seized, Israel launched its biggest military campaign in the coastal strip since ending
its 38-year occupation there nine months ago.
The incursion began in southern
Gaza, then expanded Thursday to the north as troops seized
control of a ribbon of land. On Friday, Israeli aircraft struck Palestinian gunmen in northern Gaza.
Palestinian health officials
said a total of 32 Palestinians were killed over two days, including 24 on Thursday, in the bloodiest day of clashes since
the renewed fighting began last week. An 11-year-old boy shot in the chest during fighting on Wednesday died of his wounds
late Friday, Palestinian hospital officials said.
Egyptian mediators have
proposed a two-stage deal in which Hamas would free Shalit and halt rocket attacks. In exchange, Israel would halt its offensive and promise to free some Palestinian prisoners
in the future.
A Palestinian official close
to the negotiations said Israel has agreed
to the Egyptian formula, but wants the deal to be confidential, to avoid the impression of a direct prisoner exchange. Hamas
wants the terms of the deal to be announced publicly, he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the talks are confidential.
Israeli Cabinet minister
Roni Bar-On, who is close to Olmert, said Israel
would not negotiate with Hamas over the release of prisoners. However, his comment did not appear to contradict Dichter who
also did not call for direct contact with the militants.
The fighting has compounded
the misery that has deepened in Gaza and the West Bank since Hamas took power in March. International sanctions
imposed to pressure the group to recognize Israel
have rendered it unable to pay government salaries, but on Friday, Palestinian officials said about one-fifth of the 165,000
civil servants would receive a small down payment.
Government employees sustain
about one-third of the Palestinians. Small down payments have been paid twice before.