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Signs of new effort to free Israeli held in Gaza

world Updated: Oct 16, 2010 18:17 IST

AP
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The German mediator trying to broker the release of an Israeli soldier held captive for four years by Palestinian militants made a secret visit to the Gaza Strip, a senior Hamas official said Saturday, suggesting a renewed attempt to push forward negotiations deadlocked for months.

Hamas official Osama Mazeini described the German's trip as a "feeler visit," but he would not say whom the mediator met with or how long he stayed. The London-based Arabic newspaper Al-Hayat said he visited two weeks ago.

Hamas-backed militants from Gaza seized Sgt. Gilad Schalit in a cross-border raid in 2006.

The militant group is leading the negotiations, demanding the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails in exchange for the soldier. Those prisoners include top-level Hamas militants who oversaw or planned attacks that killed Israelis in years of fighting.

Israeli officials have so far refused to release them, arguing that doing so would put more people in danger.

Secretive negotiations mediated by Egypt and later Germany have failed to produce results.

Israelis have emotionally cleaved over pursuing an exchange. Some argue Israeli officials must do their utmost to ensure the safety of soldiers in a society where military duty is mandatory. Others say the potential danger of freed high-level militants to Israeli society is of greater concern than the life of one soldier.

There are around 7,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails. Most Palestinians have a relative or know someone who served prison time in Israel for reasons ranging from throwing stones at Israeli soldiers to masterminding militant attacks that killed civilians. Their release is one of the most emotional issues in Palestinian society, and the families of prisoners have waited for a deal that would see their loved ones released.