Palestinians: Prisoner Exchange Deal Brokered

Nearly 10 months after Palestinian militants in Gaza captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, Palestinian officials claim a prisoner exchange deal is nearly finalized. They say Israel will release some 1,400 Palestinian prisoners in three stages in exchange for Corp. Shalit. In Israel, the release is seen as controversial; some say it's rewarding terrorism.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

And now, an update on a story that got a lot of attention last year. Ten months ago, Palestinian militants crossed into Israel from Gaza and captured an Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Since then, Palestinian officials have given Egyptian mediators a list of 1,400 prisoners they want freed in exchange for Shalit. They say a deal could be finalized in the next few days, but Israeli officials are skeptical. NPR's Linda Gradstein reports from the West Bank city of Ramallah on the prospects for a prisoner exchange.

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LINDA GRADSTEIN: In Manara Square in downtown Ramallah, dozens of women holding pictures of relatives who are currently in Israeli jails have gathered for a rally to mark Palestinian prisoners day. Miyastrah Sayid(ph) wipes away tears as she holds up a picture of her son, Ahmed Ibaid(ph).

Ms. MIYASTRAH SAYID (Mother of Palestinian Prisoner): (Through translator) I'm trying because of my son. He's been in an Israeli jail. He'd been sentenced four life sentences. He has three sons and two daughters. I appeal to the international community and to all the Arab countries to work hard on the release of our sons.

GRADSTEIN: She says Ibaid was sentence to four life terms in jail for involvement in a 2003 bombing in Cafe Hillel in Jerusalem that killed seven people and wounded more than 50. Now, she hopes her son and many of the almost 10,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails will soon be freed as part of a prisoner exchange for Gilad Shalit.

Ms. SAYID: (Through translator) I don't want my son to be released alone. I would like to see all prisoners released, and then my son.

GRADSTEIN: Since Israel and Hamas refused to negotiate directly with each other, Egyptian officials have been representing the Palestinians. Sheik(ph) Yazid Khadir, the editor in chief of a Hamas newspaper, says Palestinians have given the Egyptian officials a list of 1,400 prisoners they want freed. He says at the top of the list are 126 female prisoners.

Mr. YAZID KHADIR (Editor in Chief, Minbar al-Islah): (Through translator) Then, the second category is the prisoners that have spent more than 20 years. And of course, let us not forget that our resistance fighter and our leader, Marwan Barghouti, is on the list that was presented to the Egyptians for negotiations with the Israeli side.

GRADSTEIN: Barghouti was sentenced to five life terms for involvement in attacks that killed four Israelis and a Greek Orthodox monk. Israel has said it will not free Barghouti or others who were directly responsible for the deaths of Israelis. Yet al-Khadir says he is convinced a deal will be reached in the coming days.

Israeli officials are more closed now and more skeptical. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Israel is not prepared to pay too high a price for the soldier's freedom. Other Israeli officials said the number of 1,400 is too big and the number of detainees freed will be in the hundreds.

A poll published in the Israeli Maariv newspaper finds Israelis divided over whether to release Palestinians accused of murdering Israelis in return for Gilad Shalit. Hirsh Goodman of the Institute for National Security Studies says that on one hand, Israelis believe in never leaving a soldier behind in the field. On the other hand, they worry that a large-scale prisoner release will only encourage militants to capture more soldiers.

Goodman says release of Palestinians responsible for civilian deaths is tough for Israelis to accept.

Mr. HIRSH GOODMAN (Senior Fellow, Institute for National Security Studies): If they said Gilad Shalit is a soldier, and we won back 15 Fatah fighters or 15 Hamas fighters who were caught in operational raids against the Israeli army, that's one thing. But when they're demanding back people who've gone into supermarkets and killed dozens, who blown up buses, the public feels differently about it.

GRADSTEIN: Israel has carried out numerous prisoner exchanges over the years. As always in Israel, this time, there were also political considerations. Olmert's approval rating of 3 percent is the lowest in Israel's history. Achieving Shalit's release could help Olmert shore up public support. But paying too high a price could make him look weak.

On the Palestinian side, a prisoner exchange would help Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas achieve some international legitimacy for his new unity government with the rival Fatah movement. At the same time, some Palestinian analysts say that as long as Gilad Shalit is being held somewhere in Gaza, Israel will not launch a large-scale military invasion of the strip. Hirsh Goodman says that even if the Egyptian mediators managed to get Israel and the Palestinians to agree to a prisoner exchange, it could still fall through.

Ms. GOODMAN: You're not dealing with a homogenous body. You're dealing with factions within Hamas. And who knows who's holding Shalit? Who knows how much power the Palestinian government has over these people?

GRADSTEIN: Israeli officials and analysts say reports of an immanent deal are overblown, and working out the details of an exchange could take weeks or even months.

Linda Gradstein, NPR News, Ramallah.

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