PMO: There will be no ceasefire until Schalit is released
Israel will not agree to a truce with Hamas in the Gaza Strip without the release of kidnapped IDF soldier Cpl. Gilad Schalit, the Prime Minister's Office said in a statement released on Saturday.
Israel and Hamas have been holding indirect talks through Egyptian mediation since the end of Operation Cast Lead, in mid-January. For Israel, the goal of the negotiations has been to create a long-term ceasefire, and to secure Schalit's freedom; for Hamas, the main objectives are the opening of the border crossings without limitations, the release of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, and a limit to the length of the ceasefire.
Last week a number of reports surfaced suggesting that an agreement between the two sides was near, but over the weekend new reports surfaced which appeared to negate this possibility.
Israel, according to the report, demanded that the truce instead be unlimited. Sources in Hamas were quoted as saying that if Israel would accept a truce limited in time, Hamas would accept the deal by the end of the weekend. The sources added, however, that should Israel demand a longer truce, that would be rejected.
Another report pointed to a potential problem with the prisoner swap. According to Israel Radio, officials in Jerusalem said that all Palestinian terrorists released would not be allowed to return to either the Gaza Strip or the West Bank. While there was no immediate reaction from Hamas, Ahmed Yussouf, a senior official in the group told the Saudi Okaz paper that the group had demanded the release of 1,400 prisoners in exchange for Schalit.
Despite the conflicting statements and reports, it is clear there has been some movement in negotiations. Accordingly, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is expected to convene the diplomatic-security cabinet, comprised of himself, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, on Saturday evening to discuss the progress that has been made, Israel Radio reported.
Some media outlets have claimed that a deal would be reached by the end of Olmert's term as prime minister. In addition, tempered optimism was voiced by exiled Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, who on Saturday denied reports that he had claimed the talks had hit a snag.
On Friday, when asked by reporters during a visit to Doha, Qatar, about the cease-fire, Mashaal reportedly said, "It (the truce) was supposed to start on Sunday, but there has been a setback, and it will not start as it was expected."
Some of the key sticking points in the talks have been opening Gaza's borders, preventing weapons smuggling into Gaza and stopping Hamas rocket fire into southern Israel.
Egyptian state-run newspapers Friday quoted Egypt's top mediator, intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, as saying that four obstacles remained to be resolved; "firing rockets, establishing a buffer zone between Gaza and Israel, a Hamas commitment to respect calm and a halt to weapons smuggling" into the Gaza Strip.
Israeli defense officials said the talks were serious and making progress. An initial agreement could involve a partial opening of Gaza's crossings, they said, with a later agreement to include Schalit's release, in return for the release of Palestinian prisoners demanded by Hamas.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the details remain classified.