Kidnappers Hoped for Release of Palestinian Prisoners, Israel Says

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:13 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - The Palestinian kidnappers of an Israeli taxi driver, who was freed in a commando raid overnight, planned to demand the release of 2,000 Palestinian prisoners, Israeli security sources said on Wednesday.

As a goodwill gesture to the Palestinians, Israel has pledged to free several hundred Palestinian prisoners out of the 6,000 that it is now holding. But Israel has refused to release Hamas or Islamic Jihad activists until the PA begins to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure. And Israel has said it will not release prisoners involved in the murder of Israelis.

The issue is so sensitive that it led to an argument between Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and PA Chairman Yasser Arafat, who charged that Abbas was too soft on the Israelis regarding the issue. The PA wants all the prisoners released, regardless of affiliation or background.

Thanks to a joint operation among the Israeli army, police and secret services, 61-year-old taxi driver Eliahu Gurel - abducted on Friday evening - was rescued around midnight Tuesday following the arrest of two of his captors, who led Israelis to the place where Gurel was hidden, security sources said.

Gurel, who was found in a deep pit, was reportedly unguarded at the time. No shots were fired and no one was injured when elite commandos stormed the area. Gurel was taken for a medical examination, then allowed to go home. All four of the kidnappers were arrested.

Israeli forces had earlier arrested two of the kidnappers, including Shirin Faik Sheik Halil, about 18, from Gaza who was illegally living in the Israeli city of Lod.

Halil is engaged to another of the kidnappers, Ahmed Bajes Hajaj, about 25, an operative of the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine, who had been jailed in Israel in the past, security sources said.

According to the sources, the kidnappers wanted to secure the release of some 2,000 Palestinian security prisoners - including the killers of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze'evy - in exchange for Gurel's release.

When Hajaj was arrested, he had a document on him listing the names of Palestinian prisoners that the kidnappers wanted freed. Among them: Marwan Barghouti, head of the Tanzim in the West Bank, who is currently on trial in Israel accused of involvement in the murder of dozens of Israelis; and Abdallah Bargouti, a senior Hamas terrorist, responsible for the murder of 60 Israelis in the past
year and other terrorists responsible for killing Israelis.

Halil told investigators that she had met her fianc\'e9 Hajaj and Ramzi Rimawi on Friday afternoon and three hailed Gurel's taxi in Lod and asked him to drive them to Jerusalem.

During the trip, Hajaj pulled a knife on Gurel, bound him and then drove the taxi to the eastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Hanina. There they abandoned the car and walked to a restaurant in Ramallah, Halil said, according to security sources.

They spent the night in a brick factory in nearby Beitunia and then walked to a hilly area, hiding Gurel in a cellar beneath a building under construction, the sources said.

Speaking in the hospital, Gurel said he had gone through "four very difficult days," walking for hours and sleeping on wooden planks in the cellar. Other than that, he said he was treated well.

"They treated me very well, and spoke to me in Hebrew," Gurel was quoted as saying. "I didn't tell them that I understand Arabic and could understand what they were saying to each other. They were not drug addicts. He [one of the kidnappers] said that
he would request the release of prisoners in exchange for my release. I understood that he had been a prisoner as well."

It was unclear whether the kidnappers were affiliated with a terrorist group, sources said. Earlier reports had suggested that they were criminals who had tried to sell Gurel to terrorist organizations.

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