A senior Hamas official in the Gaza Strip denied Sunday that the militant group had resumed prisoner swap negotiations with Israel for the release of captured Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit.
Shalit was kidnapped by Gaza militants in a cross-border raid in 2006 and has been held by Hamas since. Hamas has demanded the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli prisons in exchange for Shalit's freedom.
Egyptian sources told Haaretz earlier Sunday that the talks, conducted by a new German mediator, are being held with Egyptian intelligence officers. No breakthrough was reported, but the efforts are ongoing, he said.
The Gaza-based Palestinian website Quds.net on Sunday reported significant progress in the talks, especially regarding the Palestinian prisoners whose release Hamas is demanding. According to the website, the talks have been undertaken in secret, under Egypt's aegis.
Israel is displaying more flexibility regarding the prisoners it is willing to release, Quds.net said. In the past, negotiations broke down over specific prisoners whom Israel was unwilling to free.
According to the website, Israel is now willing to be more flexible on a number of prisoners it had previously refused to release because they had blood on their hands or represented security risks. The list includes Marwan Barghouti, Ahmad Sadat, one of Hamas' military faction's leaders, Ibrahim Hamad and Hamas activists Abdullah Barghouti, Abbas Sayad, Jamal Abu Al-Hija,
Abed al-Nasser Isa, Hassan Salame and Walid Aakal. Three female prisoners ¬ Amana Mona, Kahariya A-Sahi and Ahlam A-Tamimi ¬ are also included.
The Prime Minister's Office said there was no new German mediator and talks to release Shalit were ongoing through existing channels.
A senior Hamas official in Gaza, Mahmoud a-Zahar, denied the talks' existence. If the negotiations had been resumed he would have known about it, he told Israel Radio.
The negotiations have been stuck in recent months following the failure of the previous German mediator, Gerhard Conrad, to reach a deal. The previous round of talks broke down due to Israel's rejection of Hamas' demands.
Hamas had stated it would not free Shalit unless Israel released all 450 prisoners on the list the organization passed on to Egypt four years ago. Israel agreed to release most of those on the list, apart from a few dozen it sees as most dangerous.
Israel demanded the expulsion of close to 100 of the released prisoners from the West Bank, their home. But Hamas refused, demanding the prisoners be allowed to return home to the West Bank and not be deported to Gaza.
After repeated failed efforts, Conrad left the region.
Another controversy erupted between Hamas leaders in Damascus and those in Gaza over the Shalit deal. Officials in Syria and the leaders of the military faction in Gaza, headed by Ahmed al-Jabri, refused to compromise over the organization's demands ¬ as A-Zahar was.
At a certain point A-Zahar resigned from Hamas' negotiation team over this issue.
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