JERUSALEM — Israel freed the most senior Hamas leader in its prisons Tuesday after prosecutors failed to persuade a military court to prolong his three-year sentence.
The release of Aziz Dweik, speaker of the Palestinian Authority parliament, fed speculation that Israel was on the verge of a deal to secure the return of a captured soldier in exchange for hundreds of Hamas prisoners. Such a swap has been the aim of sporadic negotiations mediated by Egypt, but Israeli and Hamas officials said they had no information about a breakthrough.
Israel arrested dozens of mayors, legislators and other elected officials from Hamas in the West Bank following the capture of the soldier, Gilad Shalit, three years ago this week. Most have been charged with nothing more than membership in the militant Islamic group, which views them as hostages Israel would trade for the 22-year-old staff sergeant.
Last week an Israeli military prosecutor sought to have Dweik held beyond his sentence because of his prominence in Hamas, which Israel considers a terrorist organization. The court rejected the argument, saying it was the 60-year-old Pennsylvania-trained architect's academic credentials and political skills, not his Hamas affiliation, that earned him the parliament's top job. It also cited his diabetes and high blood pressure as grounds for letting him go.
His freedom could help energize efforts by Palestinians to heal a rift between Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, and the Fatah movement, which dominates the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority. Hamas ejected Fatah's forces from Gaza in bloody factional fighting in June 2007, and many Palestinians say the split has undermined their leaders' ability to negotiate peace with Israel and achieve independent statehood.
Speaking to supporters outside the parliament building in Ramallah, in the West Bank, Dweik said he brought an appeal by fellow prisoners "for unity, reconciliation and dialogue."
He said he planned to reconvene the parliament to promote that aim; it was paralyzed by the factional fighting two years ago and has not met since. He also called on Fatah and Hamas to empty their own prisons of jailed rivals to improve the climate for ongoing talks aimed at healing the rift.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the Fatah leader, welcomed the Hamas legislator's release.
Hamas' refusal to renounce violence against Israel is an obstacle to reunifying the Palestinians. Frequent rocket fire into Israel led to a 22-day Israeli assault on Gaza last winter.
Since Shalit's capture along the border by Gaza-based militants, Israel has severely restricted the entry of goods into the coastal strip. The blockade, joined by Egypt after Hamas seized full control of Gaza, has isolated the seaside enclave and deepened its poverty.
Hundreds of Israelis protesting Shalit's captivity temporarily blocked three border crossings Tuesday, halting deliveries of food and humanitarian supplies.
On the other side of the border, about 100 Palestinians gathered to demand the release of the roughly 8,000 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons.
Hamas has demanded the release of hundreds of prisoners, including long-term inmates accused of carrying out deadly attacks against Israelis, in exchange for Shalit. On Tuesday, the Palestinian news agency Maan said an Egyptian security delegation met with Israeli military officials in Tel Aviv to discuss moving Shalit from Gaza to Egypt in preparation for his release.
Special correspondent Maher Abukhater in Ramallah contributed to this report.