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Israel Denies Reports of Imminent Prisoner Swap with Hamas


Israel is playing down reports of an imminent prisoner swap with Hamas, the Islamic militant group that heads the Palestinian Authority. As Robert Berger reports from VOA's Jerusalem bureau, each side is accusing the other of holding up the deal.

Israeli officials say there has been no significant progress in efforts to win the release of a soldier kidnapped by Hamas militants six months ago and held in the Gaza Strip. Israel played down a statement by a spokesman for the Hamas military wing, Abu Ubaida, who reported a breakthrough in negotiations for a prisoner swap.

Ubaida told Israel Radio that a deal could be imminent after Israel softened its position.

Hamas is demanding the release of 14,00 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the captive soldier, 19-year-old corporal Gilad Shalit. The freed Palestinians would include top militants convicted of involvement in deadly attacks against Israelis.

But Israel says the price is too high, and paying it would be a reward for terrorism.

Shalit's capture in June prompted Israel to launch a major military offensive in Gaza that went on for months. That brought suffering on the Palestinian people, but Israeli analyst Zvi Mazal says Hamas is in no hurry to make a deal.

"Hamas did not abduct Gilad Shalit to give him back immediately," he said. "They wanted to harass Israel, to keep it off balance for a long time, because their aspirations, or their interests, is not the welfare of the Palestinian people."

But Hamas believes a major prisoner release would boost support for the group on the Palestinian street.

One Hamas official said the ball is in Israel's court. He said the captive soldier could be released in days, or years.

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