x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Israeli PM pressured on prisoner exchange

Solder's parents camp outside premier's official residence to campaign as Israel and Hamas ceasefire negotiations appear to stall.

Noam the father of Israeli soldier Sgt. Gilad Schalit, who was captured by Hamas-allied militants in 2006.
Noam the father of Israeli soldier Sgt. Gilad Schalit, who was captured by Hamas-allied militants in 2006.

TEL AVIV // With just over a week left before a new Israeli leadership is expected to be sworn into office, the parents of a soldier kidnapped and held by Hamas for almost three years have launched a last-ditch effort to pressure the outgoing government to clinch a quick deal for their son's release. Claiming that time is running out for reaching an agreement on a prisoner exchange, Noam and Aviva Shalit, the parents of Sgt Gilad Shalit, set up camp this week outside the Jerusalem residence of Ehud Olmert, Israel's prime minister. The soft-spoken couple have mostly kept a low profile since Gaza militants took their son hostage in a cross-border raid into Israel in June 2006. But now they have vowed to stay in their protest tent at least until Mr Olmert's term ends. Mr Shalit, who arrived with his wife on Sunday from the family's home in a Galilee village about 200km away, was quoted on radio as saying: "We will stay as long as Gilad, who has been held for nearly 1,000 days, is not freed." But their campaign appears to carry little hope. Egyptian-brokered negotiations between Israel and Hamas on a ceasefire in Gaza appear stuck since the Israeli government last month decided to hinge its opening of Gaza's borders - a key Hamas demand - to the serviceman's release. Israel's security cabinet would need to meet to push through a prisoner exchange by approving the list of Palestinian inmates Hamas demands be released in the deal. Yet, it has indicated no plans to convene soon. Furthermore, Mr Olmert has little time left to reach an 11th-hour agreement because a new government is due to take office as soon as next week. The designated prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, may have difficulty advancing a prisoner swap because he is expected to form a hard-line government whose members may balk at releasing Palestinians on Hamas's list who had been involved in deadly attacks against Israelis. "It is sad to say, but it appears that Gilad will not be coming home any time soon," wrote a military commentator, Amos Harel, in the left-wing Haaretz newspaper. He added that Mr Olmert "is still playing the waiting game. His successor will be even less committed to Gilad's fate. As head of a narrow, right-wing government, Netanyahu will also have trouble concluding a deal that demands such great concessions". Ever since Sgt Shalit was abducted from Israeli territory by Hamas and other militant factions and taken wounded into Gaza, there have been few publicised signs of life from him. The last sign was a handwritten letter to his parents in June. Last week, a Kuwaiti newspaper, Al Jarida, reported that Mousa Abu Marzouk, a Damascus-based Hamas leader, was handed a letter from Sgt Shalit when he visited Gaza last month. However, the Hamas official was later quoted as denying the report and said he had no information on the Israeli. In the meantime, the family's campaign has drawn wide support this week in Israel, a country in which most citizens have served in the army and where the military is regarded with more respect than any other public institution. Hundreds of Israelis have visited the family's tent in solidarity, including families whose soldier sons have never returned from captivity. Interviews with Sgt Shalit's parents were among the top news items in the country's media. In southern Israel, three-year-old twin girls dressed up during the Israeli holiday of Purim yesterday as a grey shark and an orange fish, in honour of the main characters in a children's story written by Sgt Shalit at age 11 and published last year by his family. The soldier's parents were invited yesterday for lunch at the Israeli president's residence and for an afternoon meeting with Mr Olmert's wife, and were visited by Ehud Barak, the defence minister, who was met with campaigners' shouts of "we want him home now!" as he left the tent. "The visit is as close as Barak has gotten in expressing his public support for paying the price that Hamas is demanding - the release of 450 serious offenders in exchange for the abducted soldier," wrote Mr Harel in his Haaretz commentary yesterday. Israeli media have reported that Mr Barak disagreed with Mr Olmert's push to condition the opening of Gaza's crossings on a deal for releasing Sgt Shalit. Mr Barak is also believed to support freeing Palestinian inmates convicted of murdering Israelis to clinch a prisoner swap. Another high-profile caller at the tent was Yuval Arad, the 23-year-old daughter of an airman whose plane was shot down over Lebanon in 1986 and whose whereabouts is still officially unknown. Ms Arad, in a rare public appearance, told journalists yesterday that her father's release was hindered by the fact that governments changed during his captivity and transferred the responsibility for his return from one to another. She added: "I want to save the Shalit family from the feeling of missed opportunity, which still haunts me." vbekker@thenational.ae