Senior Hamas official Mahmoud al-Zahar has said captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit will be set free within weeks or two months at most, suggesting that the Islamic group might show greater flexibility in upcoming negotiations.
Israeli officials said Friday's completion of a swap of 20 female Palestinian prisoners for a recent videotape of Shalit was the first stage in a bigger effort by Israel, Hamas and German mediators.
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In an interview with German weekly Der Spiegel to be published in full on Sunday, Zahar - a top Hamas official in Gaza - said his organization seeks to wrap up negotiations as soon as possible.
Zahar praised the German mediator on his work in advancing talks between Israel and the Palestinians, including in the videotape deal. He said the transaction was initial proof that German participation could produce results.
He added that with the German mediator on board, talks have progressed in a very professional manner. The video deal was "proof" that German mediation efforts "could lead to success," Zahar said.
Hamas sources told Haaretz that both parties, Israel and Hamas, had agreed on a framework for the prisoner exchange presented to them by the mediator. They said he was working intensively through consultations with Egyptian intelligence. His activity includes frequent visits to the Gaza Strip, the sources said.
Speaking to the London-based Arabic language newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi, Zahar said Israel had asked former U.S. president Jimmy Carter to take an active role in the negotiations between the sides in the videotape deal, and Carter had indeed played "an active role."
Another Hamas official, Izat Rishak, told an Arab television channel that negotiations had moved forward, but he would not say whether the talks would go on for "another week, two weeks, a month, two months or several months at most."
Osama al-Muzaini, a senior Hamas figure in charge of the negotiations over Shalit, told reporters that "the Palestinian organizations have not budged from their demands regarding the identity and number of the Palestinian prisoners." He said the videotape deal was "a step in the right direction."
"We will continue our efforts to kidnap soldiers in order to free every one of our prisoners in Israel," Hamas politburo chief Khaled Meshal said in a speech in Damascus on Friday. "We can take another Shalit captive, and another Shalit, and another Shalit."
According to Chinese news agency Xinhua, Hamas sources said that indirect negotiations between Hamas officials and Haggai Hadas - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's representative in the talks - will resume in Cairo as early as this week.
After watching the videotaped message from Gilad Shalit, Prime Minister Netanyahu said that "a long, difficult process still lies ahead on our path toward completing the deal."
Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh congratulated the female Palestinian prisoners let out of Israeli prison on Friday, calling their release "a great victory for the Palestinian resistance." He added: "This is an achievement for the Palestinian factions that captured Shalit."
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