Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he accepted a prisoner-exchange deal that a German mediator proposed to free an Israeli soldier who has been held in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip for five years.
The deal, which Hamas denies, is among three major developments in Israel today, including word that the Israeli military says it has begun tearing down a section of Israel's contentious West Bank separation barrier, and Israel’s threat to bar international journalists from the countryif they board ships attempting to breach its blockade of the Gaza Strip.
Regarding the agreement to release 24-year-old soldier Gilad Shalit, Netanyahu told the Cabinet in Jerusalem today: “This proposal was difficult and not simple from Israel’s perspective, but I agreed to accept based on an understanding of our interest in seeing Gilad return home and Hamas’ interest in getting its prisoners released. Until this moment, we haven’t received an official answer from Hamas to the mediators’ proposal.”
Hamas, the Islamic movement that controls Gaza, denied the Israeli claim. “There is nothing new in the prisoners’ exchange deal so far, and Netanyahu is practicing lies,” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said in a phone interview.
Palestinian militants seized Shalit in an attack on an Israeli army post on the border with Gaza on June 25, 2006. Egypt and Germany have been trying for years to broker an exchange in which Shalit would be freed in return for the release of Palestinian security prisoners from Israeli jails.
The United States, the European Union, and Israel consider Hamas a terrorist organization.
Regarding the West Bank barrier, the Israeli military announced that it is tearing down a section near a village that has come to symbolize Palestinian opposition to the enclosure.
The dismantling of the section near the village of Bilin began today, four years after the Supreme Court ordered it torn down. The court said the barrier's route did not make the nearby Modiin Illit settlement secure.
Bilin lost half its land to the barrier. Years of weekly protests frequently have escalated into clashes between villagers and Israeli troops.
Israel began building the barrier in late 2002 to repel Palestinian attackers. But it juts into the West Bank, and critics say the route is designed to grab land that Palestinians want for a state.
Meanwhile, Israel threatened to ban any international journalists who board ships that are trying to breach the country’s blockade of the Gaza Strip.
A flotilla of Gaza-bound ships is expected to set sail soon, perhaps this week.
Israel's Government Press Office issued a statement today denouncing the flotilla as "a dangerous provocation" and an "international violation of Israeli law."
Joining the flotilla "is liable to lead to participants being denied entry into the state of Israel for 10 years" and to additional sanctions, the press office warned.
Israel imposed the blockade in 2007, after Hamas overran Gaza.
Israel eased a land blockade after a deadly Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla last year. The naval blockade remains intact.
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