A senior Hamas official on Tuesday confirmed that the Islamist group had received Israel?s response to a prisoner swap deal for the release of Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit.
The Hamas government was scheduled to hold its weekly meeting later Tuesday, and the deal was likely on the agenda, said the official.
A German mediator arrived in the Gaza Strip on Tuesday with Israel?s response to Hamas? offer to free Shalit in exchange for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners.
Israel gave mediators its response late Monday, after marathon talks were held at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu?s office. No further details were immediately available.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Tuesday that Shalit?s release was Israel?s top priority, but stressed that the government would not pay ?any cost? to Hamas in a prisoner exchange deal.
?The government of Israel and the defense establishment are working hard and intensively to find the right way to make progress in the Shalit affair,? Barak said, hours after a forum of top seven ministers concluded its deliberations over the deal offered by Hamas.
?Our top priority, according to both ethics and authority, is to bring Gilad home,? the defense minister added. ?Not at any cost, but in every possible and appropriate way.?
The top-level marathon meetings ended shortly after midnight without an announcement of a decision over whether the forum of seven, comprising Netanyahu and six other senior cabinet ministers, had decided to accept or reject Hamas? offer.
Sources in the Prime Minister?s Bureau said the ministers were not expected to convene again at this stage.
The forum of seven convened after nightfall Monday for the fifth consecutive meeting on the issue over the last two days in a frenzy of activity that suggested a deal could be close.
The group was divided, however, with some ministers opposed freeing Palestinians convicted in fatal attacks, arguing they could kill again.
After more than four hours of talks, Netanyahu?s office released a statement saying only that instructions were given to the negotiating team about the continuation of efforts to bring Shalit home safe and sound.
The forum of seven deals with sensitive security affairs, and is made up of Netanyahu (Likud); Barak (Labor); Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu); Minister without Portfolio Benny Begin (Likud); Minister of Strategic Affairs Moshe Ya?alon (Likud); Interior Minister Eli Yishai (Shas); and Minister of Intelligence and Atomic Energy Dan Meridor (Likud).
The Shalit family returned to its home in Mitzpeh Hila late Monday. A member of the campaign for Shalit?s release said that Netanyahu?s instructions to continue negotiations ?indicates progress. The family and the campaign still hope the prime minister will make the decision to see Gilad Shalit freed as soon as possible.?
Sources: Israel to demand Hamas prisoners exiled
Meanwhile Monday, senior Jerusalem officials and political sources said that Israel?s response to the prisoner exchange deal put forth by the German mediator will be positive but will include a number of points it wants to see changed. The most important of these is the number of Hamas prisoners to be released to the West Bank.
Israel would like to see most of the Palestinian prisoners from the West Bank, especially those considered the most dangerous, expelled to the Gaza Strip or abroad.
Netanyahu: Ashkenazi is concerned about Israel?s security
Netanyahu on Tuesday, meanwhile, condemned a scathing remark made by a senior official in his bureau regarding the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff.
The unnamed official was quoted in Israeli media on Tuesday saying that Ashkenazi was behaving like ?the chairman of soldiers? parents association? during deliberations over a deal for the release of Shalit.
Netanyahu emphasized in a special statement released on Tuesday that he appreciates Ashkenazi?s efforts at leading the IDF, as well as the latter?s desire to see Shalit returned home alive and well.
?The IDF Chief?s stance reflects clearly and wholly a concern for Israel?s security,? said Netanyahu.
Defense Minister Barak issued a similar response, saying that the IDF chief?s stance on the Shalit matter is in line with that of the defense establishment