Shorts: Mideast

Israel pins truce to prisoner release

Israel’s Security Cabinet will consider a possible prisoner exchange with Hamas, freeing hundreds of Palestinian prisoners for Gilad Shalit, a soldier captured in June 2007, an Israeli official said Feb. 17.

A top-level meeting was set for later in the week, government spokesman Mark Regev said. He also said a decision was expected on details of a long-term truce in Gaza.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Feb. 15 and again two days later that Israel will not agree to a truce with Hamas until an agreement is reached on the release of Shalit, who has been held captive by Hamas for more than three years. Olmert indicated that negotiations might take weeks.

Meanwhile, Khaled Mashaal, Hamas’ exiled leader, said that by linking an Egyptian-brokered Gaza truce to Shalit, Israel is blocking the truce. “It is unacceptable to combine the truce issue with the question of Israeli prisoner Gilad Shalit,” he said. — ap

Dubai to allow Israeli into tennis tourney

Dubai will allow a male Israeli tennis player to compete in a tournament a week after it banned a female tennis star from its soil.

The United Arab Emirates will issue a visa to Andy Ram, which will allow him to participate in the Dubai Tennis Championships, according to Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), who had raised the matter with the UAE embassy in Washington.

The Wall Street Journal’s European edition pulled its sponsorship of the event, and Jewish groups called on tennis associations and corporate sponsors to sanction Dubai for banning Shahar Peer, the 48th-ranked women’s player, from entering the country. Tournament organizers said security concerns due to anger over Israel’s recent military operation in Gaza were behind the decision, the Jerusalem Post reported.

The reversal comes too late for Peer, who has already missed her event, the women’s open portion, which began earlier this week. — jta

Gap announces it’s coming to Holy Land

Gap Inc. announced Feb. 16 that it has signed an agreement to bring its Gap and Banana Republic stores to Israel, inking a franchise agreement with Israel’s Elbit Trade & Retail Ltd.

The first Gap store in Israel is scheduled to open in the fall. The first Banana Republic store is slated for the spring of 2010. Gap Inc. also has signed agreements to open stores in Egypt and Jordan. Stores already are located in Middle East countries such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. — jta

Man found guilty of informing Iran

An Israeli man who was convicted of passing information to Iran accepted a plea bargain, but the Tel Aviv District Court and defense attorneys have not yet agreed on the sentence, according to news reports.

The man, whose name is also under the gag order, was arrested last May. During a 2006 trip to Turkey, he visited the Iranian Consulate several times and agreed to pass information to Iranian intelligence officials; other details of the case are under a court gag order. — jta

Golan Heights apples headed to Syria

The transfer to Syria of 8,000 tons of Israeli apples, from Druze orchards in the Golan Heights, began Feb. 17 and is expected to take place over the next few weeks, according to a statement from the Israel Defense Forces. The apples will be marketed in Syria for the fourth consecutive year.

The Red Cross in Israel and Syria is coordinating the effort. More than 20 truckloads of apples are expected to pass each day through the Kuneitra crossing, which is usually used for United Nations personnel and forces. — jta

Egyptian police nab Gaza smugglers

Egyptian police cracked down on smuggling into the Gaza Strip, arresting 40 alleged smugglers. The police, who have deployed extra security forces in the border town of Rafah, also seized about $1 million worth of contraband in several raids, the Associated Press reported.

Tunnels between Egypt and Gaza have been the main conduit of goods and weapons since Israel imposed an economic blockade on the coastal strip after Hamas took control in 2007. — jta

Prime minister to get new residence

Israel’s Cabinet recently approved a $162 million budget to construct a new prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem. The design of the building includes an official residence, meeting rooms and offices, as well as venues for the Supreme Court and the Knesset.

The presentation said the new building will save money, negating the need to rent office space throughout the city and to shuttle the prime minister from his or her residence to the office.

Education Minister Yuli Tamir, one of four ministers who rejected the plan, said the millions should be used instead to build classrooms. — jta