Senior Israeli security sources on Saturday expressed doubts that a breakthrough had been achieved among Palestinian factions involved in negotiating the release of Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit, and urged caution, citing previous experience in talks for the release of Israelis.
The same sources pointed to the failure of Khaled Meshal, the head of the Hamas political office in Damascus, to arrive for pre-arranged talks in Cairo with Egyptian negotiators. Meshal is considered to be key to any move forward on the issue of Shalit, the likelihood of a Palestinian prisoner release, and the thorny subject of the establishment of a Palestinian national unity government.
The Popular Resistance Committees [PRC], a group involved in the abduction of Shalit, announced Saturday in the Gaza Strip that a resolution of the problem was due in "a number of days."
The spokesman for the PRC, Abu Mujahed [nom de guerre], said that the three Palestinian factions involved in the raid and abduction of Shalit last June have agreed to the deal put together by Egypt. According to the deal, Shalit will be freed in return for the release of Palestinian prisoners held in Israel.
A Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip, Osama al-Mazini, said in response to the PRC announcement that "significant progress has indeed been achieved in the matter of Gilad Shalit, but it is still too early to say if the deal will be carried out soon.
"Israel has agreed on the number of prisoners that will be released but we must also agree on their identity and only then can we say that there is an agreement," he said.
Shalit was kidnapped in June during a cross-border raid by the Gaza militants, including members of the Hamas military wing. Two other IDF soldiers were killed in the attack on their base, close to the Gaza border.
Al-Mazini was responsible for liaising between the Hamas military wing and the Egyptian mediators in the negotiations for Shalit's release, and as such his comments are considered highly reliable.
Other Palestinian sources said that a prisoner exchange would involve 1000 Palestinians held in Israel, and would be carried out in stages.
Earlier Saturday afternoon, Hamas downplayed claims by a separate Palestinian militant group of an imminent solution to the kidnapping, saying that while there had been "real progress," a prisoner swap was not about to take place.
Abu Obeida, a spokesman on behalf of Izz al-Din al-Qassam, Hamas' military wing, said that the negotiations over the Israeli soldier were at a standstill. Abu Obeida claimed that Israel is delaying its response to the demands posed by the kidnappers. He also insisted that his statements did not contradict those of the PRC.
The failure of Meshal to arrive for meetings in Cairo has clearly dented any hopeful prognoses for a quick release. According to Salah al-Bardawil, a senior Hamas figure in the Gaza Strip, there is no point in holding talks in Cairo if there is no agreement on the principles of the exchange and the establishment of a unity government.
Palestinian Chief Negotiator Saeb Erekat of Fatah said it was premature to think the crisis would soon be resolved.
"I don't think we're closer today to solving Shalit's problem than we were yesterday," Erekat told reporters in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
On Friday the Arabic-language newspaper Al Hayat reported a senior Hamas official in Damascus is demanding that Israel release Palestinian prisoners at the same time that Hamas frees Shalit.
According to the report, Hamas was awaiting an Israeli response to the proposal. The paper quoted the senior Hamas source as saying that the group was expecting Israel to be flexible on the timing of Shalit's release and that of the Palestinian prisoners.
Fatah officials had previously said that an Egyptian prisoner swap proposal calls for an initial release of Palestinian prisoners along with Shalit. The Fatah officials said a small group of prisoners would be freed in the first phase and a larger group would be freed two months later, including Palestinian prisoners considered to be political leaders. Altogether, 1,000 Palestinian prisoners would be released in the exchange.
Commenting on this proposal, Israeli sources said that "Israel can live with such a deal."
More than a week ago, Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman presented Meshal and his aides in Damascus with an initiative that includes the prisoner swap proposal and a deal on the establishment of a national unity government for the Palestinian Authority.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip reached another agreement Saturday to put an end to the violent incidents between Fatah and Hamas.
The Gaza Strip will be at the center of a security cabinet meeting on Wednesday, in which a decision will be made on Israel's response to the continued launching of Qassam rockets and the smuggling of weapons from Sinai using tunnels.
Meshal slated to hold Cairo meeting on Shalit dealKhaled Meshal, the head of Hamas's political bureau, skipped a scheduled meeting with senior Egyptian officials in Cairo on Saturday to discuss the proposed prisoner exchange.
Sources involved in the talks had described the meeting as "critical," estimating that if Meshal really did come from Damascus to attend the session, he would probably accept the proposed deal.
Israeli and Hamas sources had said that they were pessimistic about the chances of a deal actually materializing at the end of the Cairo meeting.
Senior Palestinian sources said Thursday that following the Cairo meetings, further consultations are expected to take place in Damascus among representatives of Fatah, Hamas, Syria, Qatar and Spain in order to solve the unity government conundrum.
The sources explained that Spain is willing to send representatives to these talks in an effort to solve the crisis in the Gaza Strip.
However, a senior Hamas official told Haaretz on Thursday that he is not optimistic that the talks in Egypt will result in either Shalit's release or the establishment of a national unity government.
An Israeli government source similarly said that "there is no reason to get excited about Meshal's visit to Cairo."
Government sources explained that they are not aware of any significant progress having been made in talks about a prisoner exchange.
Noam Shalit, Gilad Shalit's father, told Haaretz on Thursday that he was skeptical about the results of the meeting between Meshal and Suleiman.
He added that not a single Israeli official has reported to him on the government's expectations of this meeting.
"I hope that this meeting will take place and be fruitful. However, as long there is no such meeting, we have nothing to say on this matter," Shalit said.
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