Truce talks – an End to Israel’s Collective Punishment?

Haaretz is running a story which contains a degree of hope that soon the horrendous blockade on Gaza by Israel may be lifted. Will the outcome truly be dependent on the views of Khaled Meshal?

The pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat reported Sunday that Israel has agreed to release 1000 Palestinian prisoners as part of the deal, including Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti. But the London-based daily also said that Israel has refused to free Front for the Liberation of Palestine leader Ahmed Sa’ada.

According to the report, Israel has agreed to release 350 of the 372 prisoners on a list presented by Hamas.

Meanwhile, Defense Minister Ehud Barak confirmed that “supreme efforts” are being made to secure Shalit’s release in the near future.

On Saturday night, Israel’s “troika” – composed of Prime Minister Olmert, Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni – held an unusual meeting at the Defense Ministry to discuss the negotiations for a cease-fire deal in the Gaza Strip, along the lines proposed by Egypt.

The meeting also included Minister Rafi Eitan, whom Olmert recently asked to join the meetings involving information on Shalit.

Eitan, an avid sculpture is ex Mossad and Shin Bet and once was Begin’s advisor on terrorism [irony] on which he is regarded as an expert. He has also liased with MI6 on terrorism in Northern Ireland which ended after the IRA put out orders for his assassination.

A senior political source said on Saturday that “there is still no decision on Shalit, mostly because of Hamas’ need to form a joint position on the matter.”

The same source also said that any reports that a deal may be at hand are exaggerated. “As soon as there is something to talk about, the political-security cabinet will meet,” the source added. “So far the matter has not reached the decision-making stage.”

On Thursday the prime minister held a series of meetings on Shalit. A senior political source said that during the talks a number of new ideas were introduced with regard to a potential deal. “In recent days, efforts on Shalit’s behalf have been accelerated,” the source said.

The breakthrough was achieved last week during talks in Cairo between Egypt’s chief of intelligence, Gen. Omar Suleiman, and Hamas representatives, and later in talks between the senior Egyptian mediator and Amos Gilad, the head of the Defense Ministry’s political-security bureau.

Gilad returned from Cairo Thursday with what appears to be a detailed agreement for a cease-fire and he is expected to go back to Egypt in a day or two.

On Saturday, a senior Hamas figure from the Gaza Strip, Mahmoud al-Zahar, traveled to Cairo, in what was his first public appearance since going underground during Operation Lead Cast. He was accompanied by Hamas parliamentarian Salah al-Bardawil as well as Nizar Awadalla, who handles the Shalit case for Hamas. Accompanying them was the spokesman for the Hamas government, Taher al-Nunu.

Zahar told the Arabic language satellite television station Al-Jazeera on Saturday that Hamas will evaluate the Israeli proposals and will offer its final response to it.

The senior Hamas official will also travel with his delegation to Damascus for talks with Meshal and his aides. Their meeting is considered crucial on whether a deal will be finalized.

At this point the following are believed to be the main points of the deal that is being formulated:

# A cease-fire for 18 months in the Gaza Strip (unrelated to the West Bank). Once the cease-fire comes to an end, it will be possible to extend it for another 18 months. Hamas has promised to prevent attacks from the Gaza Strip and the IDF will avoid attacks of its own.

# A full reopening of the crossings between Israel and the Strip, which means more than mere humanitarian assistance will be allowed to cross into Gaza. Israel has conditioned a full reopening of the crossings on the release of Gilad Shalit.

# Gilad Shalit will be returned to Israel in the near future, in return for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners.

# Reopening of the Rafah border crossing. Following Egyptian insistence, the crossing will be run by Palestinian Authority officials loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas. However, unlike a similar 2005 agreement, Hamas will be allowed to maintain a presence at the crossings.

This formula appears to be acceptable to Israel, Egypt and the Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip, under Ismail Haniyeh. The main obstacle at this point may lie in Damascus, since Meshal may block it. Also opposed to the formula under negotiation is the head of Hamas’ military wing, Ahmed Ja’abari.

In another Haaretz story, it’s reported that Turkey and Qatar are playing a large role in peace talks and the release of Shalit.

Turkish news channel CNN Turk reported Friday that Turkish officials were currently holding talks on the issue with Hamas officials in Damascus, the base of the Islamist militant group’s political leadership.

Reuters Friday quoted a Palestinian official as saying that Turkey and Qatar have taken a lead role in the negotiations over Shalit in recent months.

Other than the difference between the one year truce mooted by Hamas and the 18 month truce favoured by Israel, and a limiting in the numbers of political prisoners to be freed in exchange for Shalit, it is unclear to me why Meshaal would impede the latest proposed deal.

He said recently on Friday that “Hamas would reject a truce unless the deal included lifting the blockade”, and these terms appear to have been met, unless Israel is simply putting up smoke and mirrors.

The more conservative Jerusalem Post reiterates part of the Haaretz story with further illuminations:

The London-based Al Hayat quoted Palestinian sources as saying Israel has agreed to release 1,000 Hamas prisoners in exchange for Schalit, including Tanzim leader Marwan Barghouti.

The Jerusalem Post could not confirm the report.

On Saturday, government officials told The Jerusalem Post that a change in the positions of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has created a window of opportunity to strike a deal with Hamas for a prisoner swap that would free Schalit before a new government is established.

Olmert and Livni are now willing to release more and “higher quality” security prisoners in a swap than they were before Operation Cast Lead, according to the officials.

A top government official told the Post on Saturday night that a combination of the change in the stance of Olmert, Livni and Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) chief Yuval Diskin to back a prisoner swap together with the outcome of last month’s Operation Cast Lead had created a “window of opportunity” to reach a deal with Hamas.

According to the official, Barak, IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi and OC Military Intelligence Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin also supported a prisoner swap with Hamas.

The official downplayed the significance of the Turkish involvement in the Schalit talks, saying that while dialogue was positive, the Egyptian mediation track was more likely to succeed.

Senior Hamas official Osama al-Muzaini yesterday denied Turkish media reports that a prisoner swap agreement could be clinched by Tuesday.

The reports of a breakthrough were “motivated by political considerations ahead of the elections in Israel,” Muzaini said.

News channel CNN Turk reported on Friday that Turkish officials were discussing a deal with Hamas leaders in Damascus.

Both the security cabinet and the full cabinet will convene to endorse a list of Palestinian security prisoners to be released if the details of a prisoner swap are finalized.

The names of the Palestinian detainees will then be posted on the Internet for 48 hours to allow those who object to their release to petition the High Court of Justice.

Ma’an News Agency reiterates the 1000 prisoner swap figure mentioned in Haaretz.

Israel has agreed to release approximately 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the release captured Israeli soldier in Gaza Gilad Shalit, Palestinian sources told the London-based daily Al-Hayat newspaper on Saturday.

The list of those to be released likely includes 25 prisoners sentenced to long term imprisonments including all women, children, Palestinian lawmakers and ministers. The sources noted that Hamas insisted on the release of eight high-profile prisoners including Secretary General of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) Ahmad Sa’adat and Fatah strongman Marwan Barghouthi.

According to the sources quoted by Al-Hayat, Israel agreed to release Marwan Barghouthi, but refused to release Sa’adat. It appears that the current ruling coalition in Israel led by Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni’s Kadima and Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud are aiming at completing the prisoner swap before Tuesday’s elections.

Meanwhile Abbas is using the slight window of opportunity before the Israeli elections on Tuesday to push for Israel to accept the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative.

Israel has “no other choice” than to embrace the Arab Peace Initiative set out in 2002 if it wants to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas said on Saturday.

During a visit to Ankara in the wake of Israel’s 22-day war on Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Abbas pointed to the Arab League initiative — revived in March 2007 at a summit in Riyadh — as the best way forward in the Middle East.

“Israel has no other choice than to accept the Arab peace plan,” said Abbas during a meeting with Turkish President Koksal Toptan, the domestic Anatolia news agency reported.

The Arab Peace Initiative would see all Arab nations establish normal relations with Israel in return for an Israeli pullout from occupied lands and the creation of a Palestinian state with its capital in east Jerusalem.

While citing “positive aspects” in the initiative, Israel never formally accepted it, chiefly because it refers to a right of return for Palestinians made refugees by the 1948 founding of the Jewish state.

Promoted by Saudi Arabia, the initiative was embraced by all Arab League member nations at a summit in Beirut in March 2002. Abbas said Turkey — which is not a league member — supports it.

Emanuela at All Voices puts Israel’s existing so-called ‘unilateral’ truce, militant rockets and inflammatory killings by Israel in perspective.

Jews sans Frontiers republish a powerful letter to EU Envoy Marc Otte pertinent to both the repellent EU support for the illegitimate Abbas, Israel and its blockade on Gaza.

The word ‘terrorist,’ among Israelis and their supporters, means ‘Palestinian’. Thus, all Palestinians are considered terrorists. The reason for that is that every Palestinian, even a child, strikes terror in the heart of Israelis. Israelis are terrorized by the fear that they might one day be held to account for the 100 years of crimes, of ethnic cleansing, land theft and murder. Israelis can forgive the German people the holocaust but they cannot forgive Palestinians for being their victims, and for being, simply by being, the incarnation of their fault. This is why they see the rebuilding the sewage system, letting kids go to school, drinking clean water, as an encouragement of “terrorism.” For these children will learn at school that their houses and their fields, the lives their parents could have had, the world that was theirs, were stolen from them. And what is more horrible, more instilling terror in the heart of the perpetrators than the thought of a day of reckoning and the knowledge of their guilt?

Your question, dear Marc Otto, should not be directed to Israelis. The truth terrorizes them so much they can barely speak coherently. Your question should be directed at the governments that sent you. Ask them this:

For how long are you going to support and defend the criminals instead of supporting bringing them to justice? For how long are you going to support the murder of children in defense of the dispossession of their parents?