JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel would free 1,000 Palestinian prisoners if the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas releases Gilad Shalit, the soldier its militants captured four years ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Thursday.
In a live address to the country, Netanyahu said Israelis wanted Shalit back safely but the nation could not “pay any price” because past experience showed many Palestinians released had returned to carry out attacks on Israelis.
“The German mediator’s offer which we agreed to accept called for the release of 1,000 terrorists. This is the price I am prepared to pay to bring Gilad home. I said yes to the deal and it is ready for immediate implementation,” Netanyahu said.
He was referring to a moment last December when a deal and a prisoner exchange brokered by the German mediator, who has preferred to act out of the media’s glare, appeared imminent but did not come to fruition.
Media reports at the time spoke of 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Shalit, although until Thursday there was never official confirmation from the Israeli side.
Netanyahu said, however, that Israel would not meet any demand from Shalit’s captors.
“But there are prices that I am not prepared to pay and they are not included in this difficult deal,” Netanyahu said.
“I am steadfast on two basic principles: the first principle is that dangerous terrorists will not return to the areas of Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) from where they can continue to harm Israel’s citizens.”
Netanyahu named Tunisia or the Gaza Strip or any other place, but not to the West Bank because this could afford them access to Israeli cities.
He said the second sticking point was “top terrorists” who would not be freed because “once released from jail, will greatly strengthen Hamas’s leadership and will give great support for new terror attacks”.
Hamas, reacting to Netanyahu’s statement, said the sticking point was over which prisoners should be released and not the overall number.
“Netanyahu is trying to delude Israeli public opinion and deceive the people. It is not a matter of numbers. It is a question of who will be released,” said Ayman Taha, a senior Hamas spokesman.
Hamas insists that out of the 1,000, Israel must release 450 prisoners jailed for violent attacks on Israelis, Taha said. But in past negotiations Israel had rejected most of those named by Hamas in that category.
Netanyahu pointed to two previous prisoner exchanges in 1985 and 2004 and said hundreds of Palestinian prisoners Israel had released in exchange for its captives had returned to carry out acts of violence against Israelis.
Shalit was abducted by gunmen who infiltrated an Israeli army base bordering the Gaza Strip in 2006. He is believed to be held somewhere in the coastal enclave.
In a campaign to pile pressure on the government to negotiate their son’s release, the Shalit family on Sunday began a march on Jerusalem with their supporters and said they would camp there until Shalit was released.
Noam Shalit, Gilad’s father, said Netanyahu had to make the tough decision and complete the deal to release his son.
“I call on you Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to listen to the voices of the masses who are marching with us and take strength from them to make this tough decision before it will be too late,” he said.
Additional reporting by Saleh Salem in Gaza; Writing by Douglas Hamilton and Ori Lewis; Editing by Janet Lawrence