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Israel, Hamas resume prisoner swap talks

OCCUPIED JERUSALEM: Israel said Sunday it had resumed talks with the Hamas on swapping about 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for a soldier held captive for more than four years.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the German mediator who has been working to broker a deal for about a year has returned to the region.

Hamas captured Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit in June 2006 in a raid across the Gaza-Israel border. Secret negotiations over a swap, mediated by Egypt and more recently by Germany, have been deadlocked for several months. Hamas is not part of the US-sponsored peace talks that restarted last month in Washington. As opposed Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who is heading the peace negotiations, Hamas has no official relations with Israel.

Deals proposed in the past have entailed Israel swapping about 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for Schalit. The most recent talks broke down over Israel’s refusal to release a number of prisoners who carried out deadly attacks on civilians because of fears they would return to violence. Hamas insists these prisoners be part of any deal. Hamas officials said over the weekend that the lead German mediator had returned to the region to resume talks, which Netanyahu confirmed.

“We are operating at all times, in different and various ways to bring him back. One of these ways, even the main way, is this negotiation, which indeed resumed a few weeks ago,” Netanyahu told Israel Army Radio Sunday. Neither Netanyahu nor Hamas officials provided any details about the current state of negotiations.

But Hamas spokesman Ayman Taha said the German mediator’s visit was “exploratory” and that he had not brought a new offer. “Netanyahu is misleading Israeli public opinion when he talks about his willingness to make major concessions in order to conclude the deal,” Taha said. The release of prisoners is an emotionally charged issue for both Israelis and Palestinians.

Palestinians view the 7,000 prisoners Israel holds as heroes, and most of them have a relative or know someone who has done time. Israel detains them for offenses ranging from participating in attacks to stone-throwing and belonging to organizations Israel considers illegal.

— Associated Press __

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