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Egypt Steps up Mediation for Israeli-Palestinian Prisoner Swap

  • Robert Berger

Egypt is stepping up mediation efforts on an Israeli-Palestinian prisoner swap. As Robert Berger reports from VOA's Jerusalem bureau, the focal point of the talks is a kidnapped Israeli soldier.

The leader of the Palestinians' ruling Islamic militant group, Hamas, is meeting Egyptian mediators in Cairo to discuss a possible prisoner swap with Israel.

The leader, Khaled Mashaal, is pushing for the release of 1,400 Palestinian prisoners, in exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Hamas gunmen kidnapped the 19-year-old corporal at an army base on the Gaza border five months ago.

Mashaal blames Israel for the failure to achieve a breakthrough during months of behind-the-scenes negotiations. But, according to Arab media reports, Egypt is trying to get Mashaal to soften his demands.

The Egyptian team, led by intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, will arrive in Israel for talks in the coming days.

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev says Israel won't give in to "terrorist blackmail."

"On this issue, it's very clear what has to be done. And, I'll remind you, it's not just Israel that says that our servicemen taken hostage have to be released unequivocally and unconditionally. That's the decision of the U.N., as well," he said.

Moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, of the rival Fatah party, has also been pushing Hamas to release the Israeli soldier. The kidnapping has prompted a bloody, five-month Israeli offensive in Gaza, and Abbas and other Palestinian moderates believe the crisis has dragged on far too long.

"I think that Abbas should have to put an end for such kind of catastrophe, and to release Gilad Shalit as soon as possible," said Palestinian analyst Bassam Eid.

But Hamas, which seeks Israel's destruction, is the ruling power, and it is calling the shots. Therefore, Israeli officials see little room for maneuver. Israel fears that, if it gives in to the ransom, it would strengthen Hamas, and encourage more kidnappings in the future.

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