Prime Minister Ehud Olmert reiterated on Tuesday that the blockade of Gaza will be lifted only after captive soldier Gilad Shalit is released, a condition Hamas again rejected.
"We want first to resolve the Shalit issue and then will look into the reopening of crossings and the
rehabilitation of the Gaza Strip," Olmert said.
His demand was swiftly rejected by Hamas's exiled leader Khaled Mashaal, who again accused Israel of backtracking on the terms of a proposed long-term truce by linking the lifting of the blockade to the soldier's release.
"Israel is responsible for blocking Egypt's efforts to broker a truce by adding a new condition at the last minute," Mashaal said after Damascus talks with Arab League chief Amr Mussa.
Mashaal with Mussa in Damascus (Photo: AFP)
"A truce can come about only in exchange for a lifting of the blockade and the reopening of the crossing points. It is unacceptable to combine the truce issue with the question of Israeli prisoner Gilad Shalit," Mashaal said.
Egypt, which has been acting as intermediary in separate negotiations for a Gaza truce and for an exchange of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails for Shalit, has also said that the two issues should be kept separate.
"Egypt will not change its position on the truce - the matter of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit is a separate issue which can in no way be linked to the truce negotiations," the state-owned Egyptian daily Al-Ahram quoted President Hosni Mubarak as saying.
Hamas has repeatedly insisted that Shalit, captured in a cross-border raid from Gaza in June 2006, will be freed only as part of a separate prisoner exchange deal.
Speaking during a visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Olmert said he was "not aware of any Egyptian criticism against us."
Olmert said he welcomed Egypt's efforts to stop weapons smuggling into the Gaza Strip, "as this will make it possible to bring back calm to communities in southern Israel which are the target of incessant rocket fire."
He stressed there was no formal accord with the Egyptians "but an understanding under which they will do their utmost to halt the weapons smuggling."