Gilad Shalit, the Israeli Army corporal seized in June 2006 by Gaza militants, is alive and being well treated, the exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshal said in a British television interview screened yesterday.
Mr Meshal, head of Hamas's political bureau, said in a Sky TV interview from Damascus, where he is based: "Gilad is still alive and we treat him in a good way, while the Israelis treat our prisoners badly and everyone knows that."
The fresh confirmation that Cpl Shalit, who had his 21st birthday last week, is alive prompted a swift call by a right-of-centre minister in Israel's coalition for direct negotiations with the Islamic faction to secure his release. Eli Yishai, the Industry minister and leader of the ultra- orthodox party Shas, said: "We must do more to bring the abductees home. And, therefore, I am ready to meet with Hamas in Europe or in Egypt. Nothing is more important than the return of hostages."
Cpl Shalit was 19 when he was abducted by three militant groups including Hamas. Sporadic negotiations for his release in a prisoner exchange have gone on for many months through intermediaries including Egyptian officials. But they have so far failed to bear fruit, apparently because of disagreement over the numbers and backgrounds of the Palestinian prisoners that would be released.
Last week, Cpl Shalit's father Noam complained that "there are no meaningful negotiations". Mr Shalit also said he had failed in his attempts through mediators to have a 21st birthday message to his son published in the Gaza-based pro-Hamas newspaper Palestine because the editor refused to co-operate with Israelis.
Meanwhile Mr Yishai's Shas party triggered a fresh controversy when its spokesman Roi Lachmanovich announced that that the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had promised that he would revive previously frozen plans to build 800 homes in the orthodox religious West Bank Jewish settlement of Beitar Illit. At the same time the Jerusalem municipality announced plans to build 600 apartments in Pisgat Zeev, a Jewish settlement in Arab East Jerusalem.
The news of fresh settlement expansion came as Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, said after meeting the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Amman: "Settlement activity should stop – expansion should stop." The Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said: "President Abbas told Rice [settlements are] the most dangerous obstacle to peace."
The Peace Now group has reported that settlement expansion had taken on an "unprecedented momentum" in East Jerusalem.
Mr Olmert repeated to a meeting of his party, Kadima, his line that Israel would continue to build in East Jerusalem and in the West Bank "population centres" which the US President George Bush identified to his predecessor Ariel Sharon as falling to Israel in any final status deal with the Palestinians.
Mr Olmert and his Defence minister Ehud Barak recently approved 48 new homes in Ariel for former settlers evacuated from Gaza. Unlike Israel, the US does not accept that Ariel will necessarily fall within such population centres, but has anyway proposed that all expansion should stop while negotiations with Mr Abbas continue.
Mr Olmert however insisted: "All the reports of dramatic construction projects in the [Palestinian] territories are not true, and it's not true that we're building in violation of commitments that were made... This is going on within the framework of negotiations, and the negotiations will continue to progress."
A Palestinian in the West Bank yesterday was shot dead by an Israeli in what the police said was "self defence" after the Palestinian had pulled a knife as the Israeli and a companion were waiting for a lift near the Jewish settlement of Shiloh.