October 5, 2009 -- 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?
Zahar: I don't know what happened on the Israeli side, but we looked for everybody that could help to set our people free. Soon after the kidnapping (of Shalit), we began contacting the Egyptian security delegate in Gaza, General Burhan Hamad. But Israel at that time sought to solve the problem by security methods. When they failed after a few weeks, they resorted to an aggressive war against Hamas and against the Palestinian people, destroying bridges, hospitals, schools, municipalities. But they failed to achieve their goal. After many attempts at military actions, the Israelis asked Britain for help and we welcomed them. There was some progress regarding acceptable names of prisoners (to be released), but in the last phase of the Olmert government, during the hot election campaign, it was very difficult to achieve a deal.
SPIEGEL: How would you characterize the German mediation?
Zahar: We are discussing the issues in a very accurate way. Together we go through the list of prisoners and check why and how long each of them has been imprisoned in Israel. This is a very difficult process. Therefore, we sometimes resort to non-official speech in order to reach an understanding. Once we reach a common understanding we take further steps.
SPIEGEL: How close are we to the release of Gilad Shalit?
Zahar: It is a question of weeks, maximum a few months. We want to end the negotiations as soon as possible. We are not looking for it to be too many weeks. With German mediation Hamas will continue the discussions secretly, away from media, until we reach a deal.
Hamas: Gilad Shalit Part of Israel's 'Killing Machine'
SPIEGEL: The reason Israel does not want to pay a high price is that it will encourage you to kidnap more soldiers.
Zahar: We tried kidnapping many times. More than 10 times alone in order to get Sheikh Ahmad Yassin released...
SPIEGEL: ...the Hamas founder and spiritual leader, who was later killed by Israel.
Zahar: Once we succeeded in releasing Sheikh Ahmad Yassin as a result of the failed assassination attempt against Khaled Meshaal, no kidnappings took place in the West Bank. But as long as our people are imprisoned in Israel, this will encourage everybody to make use of methods like kidnapping. If Israel continues the philosophy of imprisoning our people, it has to expect a lot of things. Solving the Shalit problem is not a sign of Israel's weakness -- rather, its retaliation policy is a sign of weakness.
SPIEGEL: Is Hamas ready to compromise, for example on the original demand for the release of 450 prisoners?
Zahar: In such difficult negotiations, nobody can dictate his conditions to the other side, neither Israel nor Hamas. If a fair compromise is presented, we will accept it. We are realistic, we are fully responsible and the Hamas delegate is fully supported by the people, by the prisoners' families and by the different factions because this is a national interest. We are talking about the most vulnerable. That is why we first demanded the release of women. One woman gave birth to her son in prison. We are talking about children that grew up in Israeli prisons.
SPIEGEL: Do you have a message to Gilad Shalit's parents?
Zahar: Of course I understand the feelings of a father and a mother. But Gilad Shalit was not a child, he was a soldier who carried a gun and was kidnapped from a tank. He was part of the killing machine against the Palestinians. But once he became imprisoned, he changed from being a soldier to being a prisoner. A prisoner has rights which should be fulfilled. On the video you can see how well we take care of him.