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Hamas, Israel prisoner deal is at risk

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Senior Hamas officials said Monday that the Islamic militant group is still wrangling with Israel over the names of 50 prisoners it wants released in exchange for a captive Israeli soldier, signaling significant gaps in the way of an anticipated deal.

Last week, Israel and Hamas spoke of progress, raising speculation that an agreement could be wrapped up within days. Hamas is demanding some 1,000 prisoners in exchange for an Israeli soldier it has held for more than three years.

But Hamas officials said Israel is balking at including prominent political leaders and top Hamas militants it holds.

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. He is seen as a possible successor to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and Israel is wary of freeing him.

Israel is eager to win the release of Sgt. Gilad Schalit, whose plight has generated much public sympathy. But the government fears a deal could bolster Hamas at the expense of Abbas.

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 Hamas 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.

Hezbollah's leader said Monday that the Lebanese militant group will improve its weapons capabilities to face off any Israeli threat and that armed struggle was the only way to regain Arab lands captured by the Jewish state. Hassan Nasrallah's remarks signaled the group has no intention of meeting a United Nations resolution requiring it to give up its weapons. That position that has generated division among the country's fractious political groups as well as concern in Israel, which says it is preparing to deploy a defense system to shoot down rockets from Lebanon. Nasrallah gave no details on the weapons plans, but Hezbollah has said it has tens of thousands of rockets.

Hamas, Israel prisoner deal is at risk 11/30/09 [Last modified: Monday, November 30, 2009 11:03pm]
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