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ISRAEL: No more perks for Palestinian prisoners, says Prime Minister Netanyahu

1822 After Hamas rejected a call from the International Red Cross for access to Gilad Shalit, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called an end to perks for Hamas prisoners in Israeli prisons.

Gilad Shalit was a 19- year-old corporal in 2006 when he was captured in a cross-border attack on an Israel army post and taken  to the Gaza Strip by Palestinian militants. Indirect negotiations between Israel and Hamas, brokered by Germany and Egypt, have at times brought the sides closer to an agreement but never close enough to secure the Israeli soldier's release, or that of the 1,000-plus Palestinian prisoners demanded in return.  

The last sign of life from Shalit came nearly two years ago, in a video showing him in fair health and holding a dated newspaper. Aside from that and a previously released letter, there has been nothing to establish his condition or whereabouts. Requests by the International Committee of the Red Cross for access to Shalit have been rejected repeatedly, including one today.

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"The total absence of information concerning Mr. Shalit is unacceptable.... The Shalit family have the right under international humanitarian law to be in contact with their son," ICRC director-general  Yves Daccord said in Thursday's statement. A spokesman for Hamas dismissed the request, saying that the ICRC should not play "Israeli security games aimed at reaching Shalit" and instead take a stand that ends the suffering of Palestinian prisoners.

Netanyahu does not think all Palestinian prisoners' suffering is so great. Speaking in Jerusalem Thursday evening, Netanyahu announced a change in policy. Israel is obliged to follow international law and charters where prisoners' right are concerned, as well as as its own law. But the perk-party and extras, the prime minister said, were coming to an end.

Netanyahu didn't go into great detail but referred to the practice of allowing incarcerated murderers to enroll in academic studies and obtain advanced degrees. "We'll have no more masters and doctors of terror," Netanyahu said.  The prime minister stated his belief that uniting in political and public pressure on Hamas will ultimately achieve Shalit's safe return home.

Shalit Netanyahu spoke at the end of the three-day Israeli Presidential Conference held under the auspices of Israeli President Shimon Peres, dedicated to "facing tomorrow."  Outside the convention center  demonstrators were urging the government to take action and reach an agreement for Shalit's release. "For Shalit there is no tomorrow," read one banner.

Activists for Shalit told Israeli journalists that the prime minister's move was too little, too late.

The free-Shalit protest tent up the street from Netanyahu's residence started as as a street-side protest with two chairs and grew to sprawl across the whole block. It has been staffed around the clock for several years by volunteers and by Gilad's parents, who have lived there since last summer. Aviva Shalit, his mother, sat  quietly knitting by an empty chair that awaits her son,  tired at the end of another day of well-intended words. Noam, Gilad's father, has little patience left for words of encouragement. "I want actions," he said this week.

"It is scandalous that he's still there," said Neta, a civilian engineering project manger who gave only one name, visiting the tent this week. "I didn't believe he'd be there for so long," she said, adding that the more time passes, the higher the price becomes.

"The price" is a matter of bitter public debate among civilians and decision-makers alike. Some believe Israel can and should take the risk of releasing the Palestinian prisoners, including those involved in high-profile attacks, out of responsibility to Gilad, and all soldiers. Others warn against putting murderers and terrorism operatives back in the Palestinian territories, out of responsibility to Israeli citizens. Answering questions on the topic via Youtube this week (in Hebrew) , Netanyahu said Israel is doing many different things for Shalit's release but that Israelis' security must be taken into account.

The family has accused the prime minister's office of waging a scare campaign. "It is easier to scare than it is to act," said Neta, as her daughters added their good wishes to a giant banner signed by people from around the world.

 -- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem

Top photo: A sign addressed to Netanyahu and his wife near their Jerusalem residence reads: "Sara and Bibi, I have been in captivity alone for 1822 days. Where are you?!"

Middle photo: People sign block-long banners for Shalit, while volunteers staff a campaign desk.

Bottom photo: Room running out on the banners, people scrawl good wishes anywhere along the street.

Credit: Batsheva Sobelman/Los Angeles Times.

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