Egypt has demanded that Hamas immediately release a captured Israeli soldier to avoid a worsening crisis in the violence-battered Gaza Strip, Palestinian officials and Arab diplomats said.
Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres on Wednesday accused Hamas' exiled leadership in Syria of blocking a deal for the release of the soldier.
Egypt has been mediating talks for the release of Cpl. Gilad Shalit in exchange for Israel's release of Palestinian prisoners. He was captured June 25 in the Gaza Strip.
Meanwhile, an Israeli court on Wednesday released the Palestinian deputy prime minister, the highest ranking Hamas official to be freed following a crackdown on the Islamic militant group. But the court temporarily banned him from going to his government office in the city of Ramallah, his lawyer said.
In other developments:
The Egyptian demand to Hamas came in a "strongly-worded letter" from Egypt's powerful intelligence chief Omar Suleiman to the Syrian-based Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, the officials said Tuesday. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the letter.
The letter also demanded Hamas cooperate fully with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in forming a national unity government, a step that has been stalled by the militant group's refusal to form an administration that recognizes Israel.
The message reflected increasing impatience with Hamas by Egypt.
"The leadership has received the Egyptian letter today and is studying it" a Hamas official close to Mashaal told the Associated Press from Damascus.
Peres said Hamas' Mashaal is preventing a deal for Shalit's release.
"The one who increases the tension in Gaza is the (Hamas) leadership in Syria," Peres told The Associated Press before heading into an Israeli Cabinet meeting. "They prevent the Palestinians from releasing the prisoner, which increases the tension all the time and the focus must be on this extreme leadership in Damascus."
Palestinian Deputy Prime Minister Nasser Shaer, a member of Hamas, was arrested on Aug. 19 but never charged, lawyer Osama al-Saadi, said.
The Israeli army and the police confirmed that an Israeli court ordered Shaer freed on Wednesday. He was headed back to his home in the West Bank city of Nablus, al-Saadi said.
"There was no basis for his arrest. This is natural," he said, referring to Shaer's release.
Israel rounded up dozens of Hamas political leaders after militants linked to the group captured Shalit. The arrests appeared to be an Israeli effort to collect bargaining chips to force the militants to release the captured soldier. Israel also launched a widespread military offensive in Gaza to put further pressure on the militants.
Egypt has unsuccessfully tried to broker a deal exchanging the soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.
Shaer managed to evade arrest for several weeks this summer before Israeli troops burst into a house where he was hiding in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
A total of 30 lawmakers and four Cabinet ministers remain in custody, charged with belonging to an illegal group. On Monday, another military court in the West Bank declined to release 21 of those detained officials on bail. A hearing for the 13 others is scheduled for Oct. 5.
Ghazi Hamad, spokesman for the Hamas-led government, said Shaer's detention was "political and illegal."
Hamad said the charges against the other officials were "fabricated," and they should also be released.
"If this was a good will gesture, it is better to release the other ministers and lawmakers, whose arrest was political extortion from the outset," he said.