Hamas Leader: Shalit Release 'Is a Question of Weeks'

Hamas recently provided video proof to the Israelis that Galid Shalit, the soldier kidnapped in 2006, is still alive. SPIEGEL spoke with Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar about Shalit's impending release and the role that Germany has played in the negotiations.

SPIEGEL: Hamas has handed over a video to Israel that apparently proves that Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who was abducted by Hamas in 2006, is still alive and in good health. Why did you wait for more than three years to deliver a sign that Shalit is still alive?

Mahmoud Zahar: Earlier, we handed over letters as signs of life. It was the Israelis who wanted such a sign after the Gaza War at the beginning of the year. After they randomly attacked houses, schools and mosques, they asked us whether Shalit was still alive. There is a big difference between negotiating over a dead body or a living soldier.

SPIEGEL: You demanded a high price in exchange for the video -- the release of 20 Palestinians.

Zahar: Hamas did not do this for its own interest. We demanded the release of 20 female prisoners. In our culture women enjoy, like children, a higher priority. Sixteen of the 20 women do not even belong to Hamas. The deal includes five from Fatah, four from Hamas, three from Islamic Jihad, one from the Popular Front and the rest are not affiliated with any group. Only two out of the 20 are returning to Gaza, the rest to the Fatah-ruled West Bank. We are serving the national interest, not that of any faction. You can see how the general public reacted: Everybody is happy.

SPIEGEL: But Hamas hopes to collect the accolades from the deal.

Zahar: This is a symbolic act in order to encourage the process and convince skeptics on both the Israeli and the Palestinian side. And we also wanted to make the people happy, because for many years the Israelis have prevented the families from visiting their relatives in prison.

SPIEGEL: Germany's foreign intelligence agency, the Bundesnachrichtendienst or BND, has long acted as a go-between in deals between Israel and Hamas. How big a role did the BND play in this deal?

Zahar: We deeply appreciate the role of the German mediator. He is a respectable and honest man. Since he has been on board, the negotiations have been run very professionally. This first deal is a proof that the German mediation can lead to success.

Hamas Want to Free Shalit 'As Soon as Possible'

SPIEGEL: Before the German mediator entered the picture, the role of go-between was played by the Egyptians. Why were they not successful?

Zahar: We appreciated the role of Egypt at the time. The Egyptians were successful and the German mediator built on this success. He did not start from zero. He took what was already agreed upon. The problem was not Egypt but the Israeli side.

SPIEGEL: You mean the previous government under Prime Minister Ehud Olmert?

Zahar: One of our problems with the previous government was that they told us things which we later discovered were fabricated promises. There was no concrete base for these promises. Now things are run in a very professional manner. The Germans are mediating under Egyptians auspices.

SPIEGEL: Hamas demanded German involvement after the successful deal between Hezbollah in Lebanon and Israel. Were you surprised when Israel also asked the Germans to mediate?

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