RAMALLAH, Feb 16 (IPS) - Israel is toughening its negotiating stance with Hamas as the two try to hammer out a permanent ceasefire agreement.
According to reports in the Arab media a permanent ceasefire between the Jewish state and the Islamic resistance organisation would have gone into effect as early as Sunday had the Israeli government not suddenly upped the ante.
A temporary ceasefire was established Jan. 18 following Operation Cast Lead, Israel's name for its military assault on Gaza, which left over 1,300 Palestinians dead and nearly 5,000 wounded, most of them civilian.
However, sporadic rocket-fire on Israel and Israeli military raids into Gaza since then have increasingly threatened the fragile calm.
Israeli elections last week saw the country's far-right make substantial gains as a precursor for taking over the next government.
This together with the hammering Hamas received during the Gaza war has made Israel increasingly confident of being able to dictate the terms of any forthcoming truce.
A statement released by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office Saturday said that Israel would not agree to any ceasefire unless captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was released as part of any deal.
"The prime minister's position is that Israel will not reach understandings on a truce before the release of Gilad Shalit," the statement said.
Shalit was captured by Hamas fighters in 2006 near the Gaza-Israel border, and has been held in a secret location in Gaza ever since.
Hamas has demanded the release of over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners held in Israel jails, many of whom have been detained without trial, in return for Shalit.
The group labelled the tying of a ceasefire to the release of Shalit unacceptable, and said this was part of a later and separate deal involving an exchange of prisoners.
Even Hamas's bitter enemy, the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank called Israel's latest demand unreasonable.
Sa'eb Erekat, a PA negotiator, rejected the link. He called the idea "blackmail" and a violation of a 2005 agreement between Israel and the PA on the management of Gaza's border crossings.
Progress on a permanent ceasefire has also stalled around Israel's demand that any truce be open-ended.
Hamas accused Israel of causing a last-minute setback in the indirect truce negotiations by demanding that no time limit be set. The group said initial negotiations had centred around an 18-month ceasefire.
Prior to Israel's latest demands, cautious optimism and the possibility of the implementation of a more permanent agreement had risen towards the end of last week.
Egypt, which has been struggling to mediate between Hamas and Israel, had reported progress in the dragged out negotiations.
Cairo has been holding separate meetings between a Hamas delegation in Cairo and an Israeli envoy who has been flying between Tel Aviv and the Egyptian capital.
Hamas deputy head Moussa Abu Marzouk said last week that his organisation had agreed to an 18-month truce with Israel and this would be announced within a few days.
Taher Nunu, a Hamas spokesman accompanying the Hamas delegation in Cairo, also reported that an agreement was expected within the coming days. He said progress had been made on a ceasefire, on a reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, and on reconstruction funds for Gaza.
"Many obstacles have been resolved, especially stopping all forms of aggression and the issue of the quality and kind of goods entering Gaza, and the opening of the border," Nunu said in a statement.
However, over the weekend Israel's attitude towards a deal with Hamas appeared to harden significantly.
Following the final tally of election votes, including outstanding absentee votes during the week, a far right-wing government in Israel appeared to be a certainty.
Emboldened by the election results and in consultation with parliamentary colleagues, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert decided to raise the bar for Hamas. Olmert will step down in the near future on the back of a serious corruption scandal.
With nothing to lose, and on the contrary a chance to salvage what remains of his tattered reputation should he secure the release of Shalit, Olmert made the release of the Israeli corporal a prerequisite for any ceasefire agreement.
According to Israeli sources, Olmert had been given the green light to talk tough with Hamas by the next expected Israeli prime minister, Likud hawk Binyamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu would like Shalit's release sorted prior to taking office. His release is expected to simultaneously involve the release of Hamas and other Palestinian prisoners, amongst whom are senior commanders and members involved in suicide bombings.
This is something many Israelis are opposed to, and Netanyahu doesn't want to be seen as somebody who caved into "negotiating with terrorists" whom Israel accuses of having "blood dripping from their hands."
Following the ceasefire setback, on Friday Hamas's Damascus-based politburo-chief Khaled Meshal eventually confirmed that several further complications had arisen which could possibly stall an agreement.
According to Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, Shalit and the length of any ceasefire are not the only issues complicating an agreement.
He said there are other obstacles which remain to be resolved. These include establishing a buffer zone between Gaza and Israel, a cessation of rocket-fire and Israeli military raids, both sides respecting the truce, and a halt to weapons smuggling.
In the interim the Israeli cabinet met Sunday to begin finalising its future policy towards Gaza.
The cabinet also discussed final conditions for a permanent ceasefire with Hamas, confident that a ceasefire was not only possible in the very near future but on terms and conditions favourable to Israel.
Read more from Inter Press Service.