Hamas weighs up 'last offer' for Shalit

The main obstacle remaining to the Gilad Shalit prisoner deal is the number of Palestinian prisoners who will not be allowed to return to their homes in the West Bank.

The leaders of Hamas spent this week in Damascus preparing their answer to Israel’s “final offer” which was formulated last week, after a marathon 48-hour meeting of the “seven ministers” forum, Israel’s security cabinet. In a 4-3 decision, the ministers, headed by PM Binyamin Netanyahu, approved a list of 450 Palestinian prisoners who will be released in the first stage of the deal in exchange for Gilad Shalit’s release to Egypt.

A second group of 530 prisoners, whose names will not be disclosed in advance, will be released later. Twenty females were released three months ago in return for the video of Shalit, transferred from Hamas to Israel via the German mediator, Gerhard Conrad.

(The Israeli censorship forbade the publication of Mr Conrad’s name until it was published this week by German newspapers.)

Mr Netanyahu, who cast the decisive vote in favour of the deal, only agreed to do so after adding the caveat — recommended by the General Security Service (GSS) — that 123 of the most senior terrorists, who the GSS fear will reactivate their old networks in the West Bank, cannot return to their homes.

Most of these prisoners will instead be released to the Gaza Strip, a number of them will travel to Qatar and three of them will be allowed to reside in European countries which have agreed to accept them.

The views of GSS Chief, Yuval Diskin, are a major factor in the cabinet’s deliberations.

Israeli representatives have said that this is a “final offer” and, last Wednesday, it was transferred to Hamas in Gaza by Mr Conrad. Hamas is to deliver its answer when the German mediator returns to the region after his Christmas holiday.

Some Hamas figures have said over recent days that there is no way the organisation will agree to the deportation of so many prisoners but sources close to the meetings taking place this week in Damascus have said that Hamas leaders were seriously considering it.

Another source of disagreement is Israel’s refusal to release around 15 terrorists responsible for the most serious crimes, including Fatah chieftain Marwan Bargouti and Popular Front leader Ahmed Saadat. But intelligence analysts do not expect this to derail the deal.

Hopes for Shalit’s speedy return receded somewhat this week following a statement by Mr Netanyahu on Sunday that “there is no deal yet and it is not clear whether there will be a deal”.

But a senior IDF officer said: “While we do not have a definite date and it will certainly take at least a few more weeks, we are preparing now for a prisoner exchange in the not too distant future.”

    Last updated: 1:50pm, December 31 2009