RAMALLAH â€” Israel yesterday released Palestinian Deputy Prime Minister Nasser Shaer, the most senior of 31 Hamas legislators and ministers detained after the June capture of an Israeli soldier in the Gaza Strip.
The release comes a day after an Israeli military court had reversed a decision to release 21 of the captured Hamas officials on bail, ordering the men held in detention until the end of military-judicial proceedings against them.
“I should have been free from first moment, but I don’t know why now,” Shaer told Reuters. “Anyway, there is no reason at all for arresting me or any others from the Palestinian government.”
There have been persistent rumours of an imminent exchange of prisoners, but the breakdown of Palestinian national unity government negotiations seemed to put paid to those reports, and the court decision Tuesday was seen as another nail in that particular coffin.
But with the release of Shaer, and renewed Egyptian efforts to secure the release of Gilad Shalit, the captured Israeli soldier, speculation is bound to arise again.
A letter urging the soldier’s release for a prisoner exchange was sent at the beginning of this week from Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman to Khalid Mishaal, Hamas’ political supremo who lives in exile in Damascus. “The letter asked Hamas to be more flexible in its position on the matter, as well as on the formation of a national unity government with [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’] Fateh,” a high-ranking Arab diplomat in Cairo told AFP Wednesday.
The source said Abbas, who headed for Qatar Wednesday, would “ask Qatari officials to use their influence on Hamas so that it would be more flexible in its positions” and could arrive in Cairo on Sunday for further talks.
Hamas has been adamant that any prisoner exchange must be simultaneous, and nixed a mooted deal that would have seen Shalit released first and any Palestinian detainees at some unspecified future date. The release of Shaer may be an indication that Israel is willing to go some way to meet Hamas on the issue.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was quoted as saying Friday that he was prepared to negotiate a prisoner release with Abbas in exchange for a captured soldier.
“I told Mubarak I am ready to release (prisoners) to Abu Mazen (Abbas). I am not ready to release prisoners to Hamas,” Olmert told the Yediot Aharonot newspaper.
“I had several conversations with [Hosni] Mubarak on this subject. The only limitation I set was this â€” no negotiations with Hamas,” Olmert said.
On national unity negotiations, Hamas officials have repeatedly stressed in recent days that they are ready for continued talks, though have shown no willingness to bow to international demands that the movement recognise Israel, reject the armed resistance and honour previously signed agreements between Israel and the PA.
Abbas aides have stressed that Hamas must come around to the international demands in order to end crippling sanctions imposed on the PA by the international community that have rendered more than 165,000 PA employees unpaid for months and caused poverty and unemployment to soar.
A general strike of education and health sector employees has entered its fourth week with no end in sight.
Elsewhere, an Israeli newspaper reported yesterday that Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni met her Omani counterpart in a secret meeting in New York conducted on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meetings.
Livni and Omani Foreign Minister Yussef Ben Alawi Ben Abdullah discussed “ways of promoting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process”,Â said the leading Hebrew daily, Yediot Aharonot, on Wednesday.
The Israeli foreign minister also updated Alawi about her meeting with Abbas on September 18 in New York, the daily said.
The Israeli foreign ministry refused to confirm or deny the report.
“In her meetings in New York, the minister met foreign ministers from many countries, some meetings were public, some were discreet,” a spokesman said. “I’m not confirming or denying any of the meetings.”
The report comes a few days after another Israeli newspaper reported that Olmert had met a senior Saudi Arabian official for secret talks. Saudi Arabia has strenuously denied that any such meeting took place.
In other news, an Israeli court has sentenced a Jewish settler to four life sentences for killing four Palestinians in the West Bank last year as Israel withdrew from settlements in the Gaza Strip.
The man, Asher Weissgan, was also ordered to pay nearly one million shekels (around $230,000) in compensation, to be divided equally between the four families who each lost a relative when he went on a shooting rampage on August 17, 2005.
His four life sentences came with an additional 12 years in prison, the judicial source said.
Weissgan, from the settlement of Alon Shvut, was ferrying Palestinian workers to the Shilo industrial zone when he shot two people in his car after snatching a rifle from a security guard.
Continuing his rampage, he opened fire on a group of Palestinian workers, killing one and seriously injuring two others before he was wrestled to the ground and arrested. One of those injured later died of his wounds.
The attack was part of attempts by some right-wing Jewish groups and individuals to thwart Israel’s withdrawal of troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip and four isolated West Bank settlements after 38 years of occupation.
At the time, then- prime minister Ariel Sharon condemned Weissgan’s attack as a “Jewish act of terror”.
Two weeks earlier, another Jewish extremist murdered four Arab Israelis in the town of Shfaram in northern Israel before he himself was killed by an angry crowd.