DAMASCUS // Hamas aims to capture more Israeli soldiers to use as bargaining chips for the release of Palestinian prisoners. As the latest round of direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) hang by a thread, Hamas, which has refused to recognise the negotiations, made clear its conflict with Israel will continue.
"Our message to the Palestinian resistance is that the Palestinian people support the freedom fighters to capture more Israeli soldiers," said Talal Nasser, a senior spokesman for Hamas. He is based in the Syrian capital, where the group has its headquarters-in-exile. "It is not enough for us just to have one [prisoner], Gilad Shalit. We need more. We need more Zionist soldiers to put pressure on the occupation forces to free our prisoners."
Hamas has held the 24-year-old Israeli staff sergeant since June 2006 after he was captured during a raid on a military position near the Gaza Strip. He has not been allowed visits from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), a right of all prisoners of war under international conventions. Hamas has acknowledged Sgt Shalit's right to a Red Cross visit, but has said it cannot allow one out of concern that it would lead to disclosure of his location.
There have been efforts to negotiate a prisoner swap, with Hamas demanding the release of all Palestinian females and youths in Israeli jails plus a further 1,000 Palestinian detainees, in exchange for Mr Shalit. Israel has about 8,000 Palestinians behind bars, according to human-rights groups; Hamas puts the total at 10,000. These efforts have foundered despite high-level international intervention and renewed pressure from Sgt Shalit's family on the Israeli government to conclude a deal.
During a visit to Damascus in May, the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, met Khalid Meshaal, the Hamas leader, and urged him to set the Israeli soldier free. Paris has also stepped in on Sgt Shalit's behalf because he holds French citizenship. Mr Nasser, the Hamas official, said such attention only highlighted the bias in the international community over its treatment of Israeli and Palestinian prisoners.
"Why is the world up in arms about one Israeli solder who was captured, Gilad Shalit, when we see no statement or movement from the international community even through there are 10,000 Palestinians as prisoners of war in Israeli jails?" he asked. Mr Nasser made the remarks at a demonstration organised by Palestinian factions in the Yarmouk neighbourhood of Damascus on Saturday to highlight the situation facing Palestinian detainees. Calling the prisoners "heroes", Mr Nasser pledged they would not be forgotten and that every effort would be made to set them free, including taking more Israeli soldiers captive.
Human-rights monitors, including Amnesty International, have criticised both Israel and Hamas over the use of detainees as bargaining chips. After Sgt Shalit's capture, Israel arrested a number of Hamas members of parliament in an effort to pressure the group into releasing him. The crippling, long-running siege of the Gaza Strip has also, in part, been justified by the Israeli authorities on the grounds it would force Hamas to release the soldier.
While Sgt Shalit has been denied visits from the ICRC and his family, Israel has also refused familial visits to Palestinian detainees, according to Amnesty International. Hamas, an Islamist movement that rules the Gaza Strip and which enjoys backing from Iran and Syria, is considered a terrorist organisation by the United States and Israel, a classification the group denies. It asserts its right to resist Israeli occupation by force of arms if necessary.
The movement won Palestinian elections in 2006, defeating its more western-friendly rival, Fatah, which dominates the PA and controls the West Bank. That election result ushered in a period of deep intra-Palestinian division, which more than once threatened to break out into open fighting. Senior representatives of Hamas and Fatah met in Syria on Friday as part of a renewed Palestinian reconciliation effort. Those talks came against the backdrop of direct PA-Israeli negotiations, sponsored by the Quartet - the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations.
Hamas has called the peace talks illegitimate, saying the PA does not represent the Palestinian people, only the Fatah faction. The Quartet has refused Hamas's involvement in any discussions because the group will not meet basic conditions, including recognition of Israel and a renunciation of violence.