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After Gilad Shalit prisoner swap, Hamas hopes for eased Gaza blockade

By Ernesto Londoño,

GAZA CITY — Newly released Palestinian prisoners held rambunctious homecoming receptions Wednesday as leaders of the Hamas militant group that secured their freedom expressed hope that Israel would ease the blockade it imposes on the Gaza Strip.

Senior Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar said in an interview that the blockade featured prominently in negotiations with Israel that led to the release of abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

“They should make an end to the blockade,” said Zahar, a physician who co-founded Hamas.

An Israeli official said Wednesday night that Israel had not agreed to ease the blockade it imposes on the Palestinian enclave, home to more than 1.6 million people, as part of the prisoner swap deal, which was mediated by Egypt.

But Zahar said Hamas leaders would like to see Egypt persuade Israel to ease the restrictions that have isolated the residents of Gaza.

Israel imposed an airspace and maritime blockade as well as limits on construction materials and other restrictions after Hamas assumed power in Gaza in 2007, following its victory in parliamentary elections the year before. Those measures were intensified after the 22-day Gaza war that ended in January 2009 to make it harder for Hamas to stockpile long-range rockets and build bunkers. The blockade was widely seen as a punitive measure driven in large part by the outrage that Shalit’s abduction in 2006 generated in Israel.

But after Shalit and the first wave of the 1,027 Palestinian prisoners included in the deal were released Tuesday, Hamas leaders said they would continue to attempt to kidnap Israeli soldiers to use as bargaining chips for future swaps.

“Anyone who saw the celebrations yesterday in Gaza would say that any illusions that the Hamas regime in Gaza is moderating have evaporated very quickly,” said the Israeli official, who works in the prime minister’s office and spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter. “We are very concerned and will continue inspecting cargo for obvious reasons.”

Under international pressure, Israel started easing the blockade after the May 2010 raid on a Turkish flotilla in which nine activists were killed. But Israel will lift it entirely only “if the enemy in Gaza were to stop being such a mortal enemy,” the official said.

Although Shalit’s release removes what was perhaps the biggest irritant in the relationship between Israel and Hamas, leaders and supporters of the militant movement said Wednesday that armed resistance had proved to be the most effective tool Palestinians have.

“The Palestinian resistance should capture more soldiers and swap them for more Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails,” Khalil Abu Ulbah, who was released Tuesday, said as he received a long line of well-wishers who kissed him on the cheeks and forehead.

Ulbah, 46, was serving eight life sentences for ramming a bus into a group of female Israeli soldiers 11 years ago, killing eight. On Wednesday, as children danced to resistance songs thumping from speakers to fete his return to Gaza, Ulbah said he was proud of the attack.

“As long as there is an occupation, I do not regret what I did in the past,” he said. “With the current government in Israel, the only way forward is resistance.”

Rafat al-Arouki, 42, who spent 19 years in prison, said he and others released Tuesday are determined to empty out Israeli jails by abducting more soldiers.

“The reason for a new Shalit is we left prisoners in a very bad condition and we want them back as soon as possible,” he said.

The Israeli official said Shalit’s anemic state on Tuesday as he stumbled out of captivity pale and lanky stood in sharp contrast to the treatment of the Palestinian prisoners. Those interviewed Wednesday appeared healthy and ebullient.

Zahar, the Hamas leader, said the movement would start looking for a new Israeli solider to abduct unless there is another mechanism to get more prisoners released. The remaining prisoners in the Shalit deal are due to be released in the next two months. After that, Israel will still hold more than 4,000 Palestinians.

“If they are going to continue their aggression and if people in the international community fail to pressure the Israelis, the process is imminent,” he said, referring to a new kidnapping.

Ordinary Gaza residents expressed mixed views about the prospect of a new kidnapping.

“I think it’s the best way to get prisoners released,” said Muna Shawa, a young mother who was sitting in a park in downtown Gaza at sunset.

But university student Fadi Helles, 29, disagreed.

“The resistance must have a better strategy and think of the consequences of that,” he said. “Think of how many people have been killed and wounded. Palestinians have paid a heavy price.”

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