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Hamas Leader Resigns Over Handling of Shalit Talks

Internal strife within Hamas over a deal for a prisoner swap with Israel has led to the resignation of Mahmoud A-Zahar, a senior member of the negotiating team, Haaretz learned on Friday.

Zahar tendered his resignation two weeks ago from the Hamas team working on negotiations which would see Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit released in exchange for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners.

Prior to his resignation, Zahar was engaged in a row with Hamas political leader Khaled Meshal over the handling of the negotiations.

Zahar was toeing the more moderate line within the Hamas leadership, willing to compromise with Israel. Meshal and Ahmed Al-Jabri, who heads the military wing of Hamas, as well as Nizar Awadallah and Marwan Issa, refused to make any concessions over the group’s demands.

Shalit has been in Hamas captivity for three years and eight months already, since he was captured in a cross-border raid on the Gaza Strip border in June 2009.

After a round of dialogues mediated by German negotiator Gerhard Konrad last December, it seemed that a breakthrough was on the way,

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared readiness to show flexibility with regard to compromises offered by Konrad, and the cabinet of top seven ministers passed on a positive message of sorts (“yes, but”) to the German proposal.

Since then, Hamas has evaded having to given its own response to the German mediator. It seems the Palestinian movement has tried to avoid the German mediator’s accusations that it was to blame for the failure of the deal.

At the source of the rift between Israel and Hamas is the argument over a few dozen Palestinian murderers, senior Palestinian prisoners, most of them members of Hamas.

Israel has declared that it will not release Abdullah Bargouthi, Ibraim Hamed, Abbas A- Sayad and other militants from Hamas’ military wing. Israel is also refusing to free Marwan Bargouthi, Fatah’s strongman, and Ahmed Sadat, the leader of the Palestinian Resistance Committees.

Israel has also demanded that more than 100 of those prisoners set for release not be allowed to return to the West Bank, but rather be exiled to the Gaza Strip or abroad.

Hamas has agreed to exile a small group of prisoners, on the condition that those included in the group agree to their deportation.

Apparently, A-Zahar had shown intentions to compromise with Israel’s demands on both of these issues. But following the failure in the latest round of talks, Zahar quit the negotiating team.

According to Palestinian sources, Meshal and a few associates include A-Jabri pressured Zahar to quit due to the rift in their positions. His resignation was thus not by choice.

On the other hand, this also reflects a deep disagreement between Zahar and other senior members of Hamas.

Intelligences sources both in Israel and abroad assess that Zahar and Ismail Haniyeh, the group’s prime minister in the Gaza Strip, are most aware of the crisis that has embroiled the group since the blockade was first imposed in 2007, and have been seeking to find some sort of compromise with regard to the Shalit deal.

The implications for the negotiations are clear. Zahar was the moderate voice on the Palestinian side. Management of the talks now lies in the hands of Meshal and others who refuse any compromise. It is reasonable to assume that Hamas will maintain a hard-line stance in the coming months.

Last week, Konrad had renewed his mediation efforts after a one-month break.

On the Israeli side, the hardened Palestinian position will be received with a sigh (not in public, of course). If only a few months ago it seemed that Netanyahu was determined to resolve the Shalit affair and was ready to make major concessions comparable to those offered by predecessor Ehud Olmert, things have indeed changed.

Netanyahu is occupied with numerous issues, including the regional situation as well as the entanglement he got himself into over the national heritage sites. If Hamas persists in not compromising, Netanyahu is seemingly freed from his obligation.

It is doubtful that this will also be the position of the Shalit family. The family has given Netanyahu a year for maneuvering, mostly because of the trust built between Noam and Aviva Shalit and negotiations coordinator Haggai Hadas. It is very possible that this patience will end soon.

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