Israel on Tuesday released one of the key 'bargaining chips' it hoped to use as leverage in the efforts to secure the release of captive soldier Gilad Shalit. The move comes at a particularly sensitive time, with the three-year anniversary of Shalit's abduction by Hamas coming later this week.
The speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council for Hamas, Dr. Aziz Duwaik, was arrested in August 2006 by IDF troops in Ramallah. His detainment came after a series of failed attempts to apprehend him, and came as part of the wave of arrests against senior Hamas officials in the West Bank immediately following Shalit's kidnapping in a cross-border raid led by Hamas in Gaza.
Duwaik is considered one of the highest-ranking politicians to be arrested by Israel.
On Tuesday however, the military court at Ofer base denied the prosecution's demand to extend Duwaik's detention any further.
An escort unit from the Israeli Prison Service is currently transporting Duwaik to the Sha'ar Ephraim checkpoint, from there he will cross into the West Bank.
Hamas was quick to emphasize that the move is not a diplomatic gesture of any kind ahead of a possible prisoner exchange agreement. "The arrest was illegal from the onset, and (Duwaik's) release is a matter of the detainment period ending," Hamas said.
Meanwhile on Tuesday a website operated by the Islamic Jihad reported that an Egyptian delegation headed by a senior officer was in Israel to discuss the efforts to free Shalit. Cairo has been acting as mediator in the indirect negotiations with Hamas.
'No connection to Shalit'Hamas further stressed that the release of high-ranking officials would not change the organization's stance or lead to more flexibility on its part in the negotiations.
"There is no connection to (Duwaik's) release and Shalit," said Fawzi Barhoum, a spokesman for Hamas. "The release is a victory for international diplomacy and for Hamas' (diplomacy), which has exposed the racism of the occupation and its arbitrary political arrests."
The arrest of Duwaik and some 40 other Hamas members is at the center of the dispute between rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas. Fatah has said that the detainment of parliamentarians has crippled the council and votes held there are illegal. Hamas on the other hand claims that the MPs it has replaced the imprisoned members with are eligible to vote in their stead.
The Appeals Court explained its rejection of the prosecution's request to extend Duwaik's arrest in comments released on Monday. The panel of judges, led by Maj. Gen. Aharon Mishnayot, determined that the Military Prosecution had failed to prove the connection between Duwaik's appointment to the
position of speaker and his affiliation with Hamas. The court therefore refused to add an additional six months to Duwaik's original three year sentence.
The judges hinted in their verdict that the prosecution failed to prove Duwaik's seniority, saying this could have been shown by an examination of the Palestinian constitution or an expert witness on Palestinian governance. "However none of these things were done," the judges wrote.
The court said it was also taking into account Duwaik's health problems in deciding to release him from Hadarim prison after his original sentence was completed.
Hanan Greenberg contributed to this report