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Olmert to free 450 prisoners.

Byline: Mohammed Mar'i

RAMALLAH: Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has asked a ministerial committee to draft a list of 450 prisoners Israel would be willing to release in exchange for abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, the daily Haaretz reported yesterday.

It would be the first time that Israel has prepared such a list. Until now, it has merely approved or rejected the names submitted by Hamas. The report quoted a senior Israeli government source as saying that Hamas recently jacked up the number of Palestinian prisoners it wants Israel to release in exchange for Shalit, from 1,000 to 1,500.

At a meeting with senior Cabinet ministers on Wednesday, both the chief of internal intelligence agency, Shin Bet, Yuval Diskin and Ofer Dekel, who was appointed by Olmert to oversee negotiations, blamed the sudden increase in Hamas' demands on Israel's agreement to a cease-fire with the Palestinian organization in the Gaza Strip.

Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and senior defense officials attended the meeting. Barak reported on his trip to Cairo the day before, during which he discussed the Shalit deal with Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak and intelligence chief Omar Suleiman.

Israeli defense officials told Haaretz that last month's deal with Hezbollah, in which Israel freed Samir Qantar and four other Lebanese in exchange for the bodies of two kidnapped soldiers, also hardened Hamas' stance.

According to a government source, Egypt told Barak that Hamas is currently demanding 1,500 prisoners in exchange for Shalit who was captured by a Hamas-led military group in a deadly cross-border raid from Gaza in June 2006.

Initially, the organization had demanded the release of 450 prisoners, and submitted a list of specific prisoners it wanted. A few months ago, it raised its demands to 1,000, with the initial 450 to be freed simultaneously with Shalit and the remainder in stages thereafter. It has now upped its demands again.

Both Diskin and Dekel told the ministers that the cease-fire had hardened Hamas' stance by eliminating the pressure Israel had been exerting via both military operations and an economic blockade. As a result, Hamas no longer feels any urgency about concluding a deal, they said.

They argued that the only way to conclude the deal was to go back to exerting pressure, even if this endangers the truce. Dekel suggested halting all fuel supplies to Gaza or closing the border crossings that were reopened under the truce.

Barak, in contrast, said Israel had to demonstrate a willingness to move toward Hamas' demands. The list is expected to include the 70 prisoners requested by Hamas whose release Israel has already approved.

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Publication:Arab News (Jeddah, Saudi Arabia)
Date:Sep 1, 2008
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