Carter and Hamas discussed details of prisoner swap

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter discussed details of a prisoner-swap plan with Hamas leaders during a just-concluded visit to the region, according to the head of the Carter Center Office in Ramallah, Timothy Rothermel. 

There was apparently disagreement between Hamas and Carter on this  – and not only on Carter’s proposal for a 30-day unilateral Hamas ceasefire. 

Carter apparently put forth a new list of Palestinian detainees to be exchanged, according to Rothermel, for IDF Corporal Gilad Shalit, who has been detained somewhere in Gaza since June 2006. 

Carter’s list, which Rothermel said Carter drew up himself, included members of the Palestinian Legislative Council and of the former National Unity Government who are in prison, as well as women and children. 

But, Rothermel said, Hamas leaders did not agree on Carter’s list, “because they had been working with their own list for quite some time”.   According to Rothermel, Carter “said he could try to understand it, as there had already been commitments to other people and families”. 

Israel’s Channel 10 Television News broadcast an interview with Carter on Monday in which Carter said that a letter from Shalit will soon be transferred to Shalit’s parents in Israel — through the Carter Center Office in Ramallah. 

Carter also asserted, in his comments to Channel 10 television,  that Shalit is well, and that there are plans to transfer Shalit to Egypt, “where he’ll certainly be safe and maybe visited by his parents”, Carter said, as soon as “the first phase of the prisoner exchange is fulfilled”. 

Negotiations over Shalit’s release have been prolonged, and complicated. 

Israel’s Debkafile wrote Monday that the only achievement of Carter’s mission was Hamas’ agreement to let Shalit write a letter to his parents.  Debkafile added that “As for the US politician’s effort to obtain the release of the kidnapped Israeli soldier held incommunicado by Hamas for nearly two years, he reported that Egyptian officials said Israel had agreed to release 1,000 Palestinian terrorists in Israeli jails, but only accepted 71 on the list submitted by Hamas”.

Shalit was seized near the Kerem Shalom crossing where the south-eastern corner of Gaza intersects with both Israel and Egypt.  In retaliation, the IDF blew up Gaza’s only power plant – saying rather incongruously that the lack of electricity would make it harder for Shalit’s captors to move him around undetected.  Shalit’s capture was followed by a Hizballah attack on IDF soldiers near the Shebaa Farms area where Israel’s border intersects with Lebanon and Syria.  Two Israeli soldiers seized then by Hizballah are still missing.   In response to that attack, Israel launched what it has come to call the Second Lebanon War.  Recent unconfirmed reports have suggested these two Israeli soldiers may in fact now be dead.  

Gershon Baskin, Co-CEO [with Palestinian editor Hanna Siniora] of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI), wrote about the negotiations with Hamas in the Jerusalem Post on Monday that “There is a package deal on the table. In the first stage Israel will have to release some 450 Palestinians from Israeli prison”. 

Baskin gave some details – including of his own involvement in the negotiations:  Although kidnapped by what are apparently three separate groups, Hamas has been charged with the negotiations, pretty much since the beginning of the negotiating process. Hamas issued its demands very soon after the abduction of Schalit. The only compromise that Hamas has shown since that time concerns the release of information on his welfare and actual proof that Gilad is alive and well. Initially Hamas demanded the release of all Palestinian women and minors in Israeli prisons, numbering some 450, in exchange for information … On September 9, 2006, 75 days after his abduction, a hand-written letter from Gilad finally reached the hands of the Egyptian mediators who at that time were still based in Gaza.   Hamas was led to understand that there would be some kind of confidence-building measure undertaken by Israel following the release of that letter. On September 12, 2006 it was announced that an Israeli military court had ordered the release of 16 Hamas politicians being held since the kidnapping … At the end of the day, the court order was reversed and none of the Hamas politicians were released at that time. The captors of Schalit immediately passed on a message (to me) that Israel was not taking the situation seriously and was in fact endangering the life of Schalit.   The very first messages that I was requested to deliver to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert concerning Schalit included Hamas demands for a package deal that would include a full bilateral cease-fire and the release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli prisons. To the best of my knowledge, those demands have not changed in the past 667 days and to the best of my assessment they will not change. It took quite some time, but Hamas did also eventually release a list of names of Palestinians being held in Israeli prisons. Recently I did receive some indication that Hamas might be willing to lessen the number (not significantly) but not what they call the “quality” of the prisoners, if the package deal is completed. Now, the package that they are talking about includes not only a full bilateral cease-fire for Gaza and the West Bank but also the opening of the Rafah border with Egypt and at least one of the crossings between Gaza and Israel (most likely Karni) and the prisoner exchange”…

Baskin added: “In my assessment, Hamas will not release Schalit without a cease-fire agreement. They perceive Schalit to be the life insurance policy that they are holding for the Hamas leaders in Gaza. They will not give up that policy without having a cease-fire in place. They demand a cease-fire in the West Bank as well because they assess that if there are Hamas and other leaders killed in the West Bank the cease-fire in Gaza will immediately breakdown as well. They are demanding a policy of economic revival because with the continuation of the economic siege on Gaza a cease-fire won’t hold as well”.  

Carter’s trip was put together rather quickly, Rothermel suggested.  It had originally been planned that Carter would travel with two other members of “The Elders”, a group formed by South Africa’s Nelson Mandela on his 80th birthday in 2007, including former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson (herself a former President of Ireland).  However, apparently because Israel was not happy, The Elders announced on 8 April that this trip would be “postponed”.   At that point, former President Carter decided to come on his own, as head of the Carter Center, Rothermel said.

Rothermel worked with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) for 25 years, before retiring from a post in Jerusalem at the end of 2005.  Before joining the UN, Rothermel worked on the staff of former U.S. Congressman Bradford Morse, who in 1979 shepherded the first U.S. agreement to funnel aid for projects in the occupied Palestinian territory, with P.L.O. input and suggestions, and with Israeli concurrence, despite the ban at the time on doing business with the P.L.O. – but only on condition that the money would go only through the UNDP, and not the P.L.O. 

Rothermel returned in March on behalf of the Carter Center for a two-month trial period in Ramallah, and said he may come back again after he returns to the States in May, if the Carter Center decides that it would be useful. 

Asked if Carter had met Fatah leaders while in the region, Rothermel said he had met a number of personalities while in Ramallah, including some affiliated with Fatah, some with Hamas, and some independent. 

“He would have had extensive consultations with President Abbas, but Abbas was not here”, Rothermel said.  “My guess is that there will be some contact when Abbas is in Washington, he added. 

In the meanwhile, Rothermel said, Carter met on April 15 with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, and had a “debriefing” with Fayyad again on Monday morning.

They discussed the formation of a government of National Conciliation which would contain only persons acceptable to both Fatah and Hamas, and which would have a unified security service. 

Rothermel noted that when he was with UNDP, Fayyad was at the International Monetary Fund, and “we were friends.  I respect him”, Rothermel said – though he declined to give any evaluation of Fayyad’s government.

Although Carter was denied Israeli permission to go to Gaza during this trip, Rothermel said that he was able to go in about two weeks ago. 

Rothermel said he had to walk in through the Erez crossing, which he said did not bother him as much as what he saw in Gaza.  The electricity was available even in his hotel only for a few hours a day.  Hotels, international organizations, and wealthy people in Gaza have stand-by generators, Rothermel said, but there is no diesel fuel available on the market to make the generators work.  “I was told that there are no more operations in the Gaza hospitals”, Rothermel said, “and food supplies are running low”.   He said he was able to get some transportation in Gaza due to support from his former colleagues at UNDP. 

Apparently because of his position that Hamas should be included in the present post-Annapolis peace negotiations, and his intention to meet Hamas leaders, Carter was boycotted by most members of the Israeli government during this trip.  Rothermel said that Carter commented, “It’s the first time in 30 years that none of my security has been provided by the Israeli government”.   (Rothermel did say that he noticed Israeli police cars accompanied Carter on some of his movements in Israel on his return Sunday night and in his appointments around Jerusalem on Monday).

But, Rothermel said, Carter was very warmly welcomed by the president of the Israeli Council on Foreign Affairs, David Kincaid, at a meeting on Monday.  Introducing Carter, Kincaid said that “What President Carter brokered in Camp David had the single most important impact on the life of Israel”.  Kincaid also said that some Israelis may object to the title of Carter’s most recent book, “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid”, but that no Israelis objected to what Carter wrote in the book’s dedication: “To our first grandchild, with hopes that he will see peace and justice in the Holy Land”.

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