Hamas: Too soon to say Shalit deal is imminent
Report: Hamas delegation set to meet Shalit mediator in Cairo; Hamas: Shalit swap hinges on one prisoner.
The Hamas leadership in Syria said late Monday that it was too early to speak about certain results or a close agreement on a deal for the release of abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, despite a slew of media reports to the contrary.
The Damascus-based officials added in a statement that Israel was trying to create pressure through leaks to the media.
The statement came shortly after the Arabic-language news network Al Arabiya reported that a Hamas delegation in Cairo would discuss the deal with the German mediator involved in negotiations over Shalit.
Earlier Monday, Hamas sources said the deal hinged on the name of one final Palestinian prisoner who Israel is not prepared to free, according to the Islamist group's official journal A-Risala.
The journal would not reveal the name of the prisoner. Nonetheless, the sources said significant progress in negotiations had been made, adding that the deal could be expected to be completed by the middle of next week, granted Israel agrees to its final terms.
Hamas delegates were in Cairo to debate the final prisoner list presented by Israel for an exchange that would see Shalit freed after more than three years in captivity.
Officials close to the talks said Israel had agreed to include in the exchange for Shalit some 160 prisoners whose release it had vetoed previously.
Sources have said Hamas, in the first part of a deal, would hand over Shalit to Egypt and Israel would release some 350 to 450 prisoners.
In a sign of flexibility from Hamas, the sources said, the group had agreed that some would go into exile rather than return to the West Bank or Gaza Strip.
More prisoners would be released when Shalit was transferred from Egypt to Israel, while other prisoner releases could take several more weeks to complete.
Officials who reported that a deal is approaching said Arabs holding Israeli citizenship are among the 160 newly agreed prisoners slated for release. Israel had objected to including Israeli Arabs in an exchange.
Hamas leaders have previously been very circumspect about reports of breakthroughs, but reports circulating of late have predicted an imminent deal.
Speaking after meeting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo on Sunday, President Shimon Peres said that progress had been made on bringing Shalit home, but "the details must be kept behind the scenes."
Hamas official confirms progress in talks
Meanwhile, senior Hamas leader Ayman Taha told Haaretz that "there was movement on the matter." Palestinian sources reported that Taha and the delegation of senior Hamas leaders would meet with Egyptian intelligence officials and the German mediator on the Shalit deal.
It is unclear who will take part in the delegation, but the Al-Arabiya news station said it would include Hamas officials from the Gaza Strip and Damascus.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's bureau declined to comment on reports in the Arab media on the matter, but did not deny that there had been progress. Members of the "forum of seven" senior government ministers also declined to comment.
Much of Peres' meeting with Mubarak was devoted to Shalit, and the two updated each other on contacts with the German mediator. They also discussed the diplomatic impasse in talks with the Palestinian Authority. Before leaving for Cairo on Sunday morning, Peres met with Netanyahu for two hours at the President's Residence.
Peres told Mubarak about steps Netanyahu would be willing to take if talks with the Palestinians were renewed, steps regarding a freeze in construction in the settlements and the dismantling of illegal outposts.
National Security Adviser Uzi Arad, who joined Peres on his trip to Cairo, met with Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman but did not take part in the Peres-Mubarak meeting.
The two presidents were alone for most of the meeting, except for 15 minutes at the end, during which Peres adviser Avi Gil took part. Arad was present at the luncheon Mubarak hosted for the Israeli delegation, and spoke mainly with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit.
At a joint press conference after the meeting, Peres said that as soon as negotiations started with the Palestinians, Israel would build no new settlements nor expand existing ones, and would evacuate illegal outposts.
On previous occasions when talks were at a critical juncture, Ahmed Jabri, the head of Hamas' military wing, went to Egypt with two of his aides, Nizar Awadallah and Marwan Issa. They would be joined by senior Gaza Hamas official Mahmoud Zahar.
Speaking at an Israel Defense Forces induction base on Sunday, Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi said expectations of Shalit's return were at a stage of "controlled optimism." But Ashkenazi cautioned that there had been many optimistic reports in the past. "Our obligation to a soldier who was sent on a mission is to bring him home, and I prefer to keep the details behind the scenes," Ashkenazi said.
Meanwhile, the leader of the group of Israeli activists working for Shalit's release, Shimshon Liebman, told Haaretz that their silence over the past few days had not been coordinated with the prime minister's bureau, censorship officials or because of any new information.
"At a time like this, when there are so many groundless rumors, we prefer to give space to those doing the work and not interfere," Liebman said.