A Palestinian child stands in front of a banner with portraits of prisoners during a demonstration calling for the release of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli Jails, in Gaza City, Monday, Nov. 30, 2009. (AP Photo/ Tara Todras-Whitehill)
The Associated Press
RAMALLAH, West Bank — Senior Hamas officials said Monday that the Islamic militant group is still sparring with Israel over the names of 50 prisoners it wants released in exchange for a captive Israeli soldier, signaling there were still significant gaps before completing the anticipated deal.
But Hamas officials said Israel is still balking at including prominent political leaders and top Hamas militants it holds. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the German-mediated negotiations.
At the top of the contested list is Marwan Barghouti, a popular leader of Hamas' rival Fatah, who is serving five consecutive life terms for his role in shooting attacks that killed four Israelis and a Greek monk. Barghouti is seen as a possible successor to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israel is wary of freeing him.
A German mediator has been based in Jerusalem for the past three months, shuttling regularly to Gaza to broker terms of the agreement, a Hamas official said. He said that in addition to the 50 disputed names, the sides are also arguing over Israel's demand that some 130 people be deported after their release. Hamas wants that number reduced.
Still, in Gaza, Hamas' interior minister, Fathi Hamad, said the group hoped to complete the deal by the Dec. 14 anniversary of its founding, or Dec. 27, the one-year anniversary of a fierce Israeli offensive in Gaza. "It will be a celebration of the liberation of prisoners from the jails of the occupation," he said.
A Palestinian border official confirmed that two German diplomats had entered Gaza from Israel on Monday. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter with the press. The German Embassy in Tel Aviv declined comment.
Mohammed Nazal, a senior member of Hamas' exiled political leadership based in Damascus, Syria, said progress was being made.
"TheGerman mediator is very active, very professional. He devotes his time shuttling between the Palestinians and the Israelis negotiating over every single name on the list," he said.
Israeli officials have refused to discuss the status of negotiations. But in response to a petition filed by a victims' rights group, the Israeli Justice Ministry confirmed that a total of 980 prisoners were set for release — the first concrete details on the deal the Israelis have released. It refused a request to identify the prisoners who would be freed and said the names would be made public once the deal was approved.
"In principle there is a possibility that 450 prisoners who were demanded by the Hamas will be released. Their release is being studied meticulously in accordance to various considerations and on a rational security basis," the statement said. "In addition there will be a unilateral release as a gesture to the Palestinian people where about 530 additional prisoners will be released."
Israel is eager to see the release of Sgt. Gilad Schalit, whose plight has generated much empathy from the public. At the same time, the government fears the deal could bolster Hamas at the expense of Abbas.
The Western-backed president has been in a bitter rivalry with Hamas since the Islamic group defeated his forces and seized control of Gaza in June 2007. Abbas now governs from the West Bank.
In an attempt to strengthen Abbas and restart peace talks, Israel last week announced a 10-month moratorium on new construction in West Bank settlements.
On Monday, Israel began enforcing the order by sending out inspectors to halt illegal construction. The military said the inspectors handed out a number of stop-work orders and confiscated some building equipment.
Yesha, the West Bank settlers' council, issued a statement saying it would not cooperate with the inspectors. It did not say whattactics it would use, saying only that local settlement leaders would decide on a case-by-case basis how to respond.
The Palestinians have said they will not resume peace negotiations until Israel halts all settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem — areas they claim for a future independent state.
They have said the Israeli settlement freeze is insufficient because it does not include east Jerusalem or 3,000 West Bank homes already being built or approved for construction.
Associated Press Writer Diaa Hadid contributed to this report from Gaza City, Gaza Strip.