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Israel Says No Cease-Fire Until Hamas Releases Soldier

Israel has decided not to lift its blockade on border crossings into the Gaza Strip until the militant group Hamas hands over a captive Israeli soldier. The decision to set the soldier's release as a top condition is expected to complicate prospects for a long-term truce between Israel and the militants in Gaza.

Israel has made the release of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier seized by Palestinian militants and taken to the Gaza Strip in 2006, a top condition for reaching a long-term cease-fire deal with Hamas, the militant Islamist group that controls Gaza.

Members of the Israeli Security Cabinet affirmed that condition - a decision that may further stall efforts for an Egyptian-mediated peace agreement.

Hamas' top demand is for Israel to lift its blockade of border crossings into the Gaza Strip.

The group has said it wants to keep negotiations over the release of Shalit separate from any bargaining over a cease-fire accord. The exiled Hamas leader, Khaled Mashaal, earlier rejected any connection between the two issues.

He said it is not possible to link the cease-fire with the issue of the Israeli prisoner Gilad Shalit. He said Hamas' position is that Gilad Shalit will be released in exchange for Palestinian prisoners being held by the Israeli occupation.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has hoped to secure the release of Shalit before he leaves office, within a few weeks. He has insisted that Shalit's release happen before Israel re-opens border crossings with Gaza.

In remarks this week, Mr. Olmert said this condition is in addition to permanent security guarantees from Hamas.

"This is the priority of Israel: First Gilad Shalit," said Olmert. "Second, the end of smuggling of arms across the Egyptian border through the Philadelphi line into Gaza. And third, complete, total cease-fire and any hostile activities by the Hamas from Gaza."

The purpose of Israel's security cabinet meeting on Wednesday was to discuss details related to Hamas' demands for the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. The prisoners include some who Israel says were involved in terrorist attacks that killed Israeli civilians.

Prime Minister Olmert's spokesman, Mark Regev, told VOA after Wednesday's closed-door meeting Cabinet members approved a number of prisoners that could be exchanged for the safe release of Shalit.

"The cabinet is willing for an exchange with Hamas," said Regev. "We understand that there will be a price involved, that we will have to release, probably, some particularly despicable terrorists who are in Israel jails. But, to get our young serviceman out, we are willing to do that."

Officials did not give details who or how many prisoners might be swapped in a possible deal.

Militants in Gaza have continued to fire rockets into Israel on an almost daily basis, even after Israel's 22-day assault on the enclave that ended January 18. Israeli warplanes on Wednesday targeted smuggling tunnels in the south of the Strip and a suspected militant base in response to rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza.

Residents complain they have not been able to rebuild the thousands of homes destroyed in the Israeli raids, which killed a reported 1,300 people.

Scores of trucks loaded with humanitarian supplies have been crossing the border daily, but none of them are allowed to carry construction materials. The Israeli blockade includes a ban on cement, glass, and steel products - materials that Israel says militants could use to build bunkers and weapons to step up their attacks on the Jewish state.