JERUSALEM — Israel on Tuesday freed the most senior of dozens of Hamas politicians in custody, prompting speculation it was a prelude to a deal for the release of an Israeli soldier held by Palestinians for three years.
Israeli officials insisted that the Palestinian Parliament speaker, Abdel Aziz Duaik, was freed because his three-year sentence was nearly at an end and that his release was not related to a swap involving the Israeli soldier, Sgt. Gilad Schalit. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because no steps had been taken.
Since Hamas-allied militants in Gaza captured Schalit in June 2006, Egypt has been trying to arrange an Israel-Hamas swap that would bring his release. The negotiations have been accompanied by frequent reports that a deal was close, only to be followed by new setbacks.
Israel has expressed willingness to free hundreds of Hamas prisoners, but has balked at releasing several senior Hamas militants serving lengthy terms for attacks that killed and wounded Israelis.