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The head of Hamas' political bureau, Khaled Meshal, appears to be unwilling to release abducted Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit, mediators involved in efforts to secure the soldier's release told Haaretz last night.

The mediators said that Meshal, who is believed to have been behind the directive to carry out the attack, has yet to express willingness to release Shalit.

Nevertheless, talks with the Hamas leadership both inside and outside the territories were continuing, the mediators said, adding that they were optimistic Meshal would change his position.

Meshal's "not positive" attitude is not totally negative, the mediators said. "Meshal does not want a deterioration in the Gaza Strip either," a mediator said.

Israeli officials also said last night that efforts to secure Shalit's release are running into difficulties, primarily due to Meshal's position on the matter.

Israeli security sources said that the upcoming 24-hour period would be critical for the deal's success. If no progress is made, they warned, Israel could resort to a military option - a ground-force invasion of the Strip in order to deter the Palestinians and force them to release Shalit.

Defense Minister Amir Peretz spoke on the phone last night with Egyptian intelligence chief General Omar Suleiman, and asked him to intervene in the talks. Defense establishment officials, however, are having a hard time assessing the extent of Egypt's commitment to securing a deal, and whether the Egyptian and French mediation is enough to ensure success in the negotiations.

The IDF, meanwhile, believes that the leaflet published yesterday and attributed to Hamas' military wing, Iz al-Din al-Qassam, is authentic. The leaflet demands the release of all Palestinian women and minors incarcerated in Israeli prisons in return for information on the abducted soldier. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert rejected the demands last night, saying the release of Palestinian prisoners is not on the government's agenda.

Meanwhile, at around 10 P.M. yesterday, Palestinian activists who identified themselves as members of the Popular Resistance Committees said they had abducted a second Israeli, a settler, in the West Bank. According to some reports, the abduction occurred in the Nablus area.

By midnight, however, IDF and Shin Bet security service officials had been unable to confirm the report, and had received no information of a missing settler.

"At this stage, we are feeding off the report in the media," a senior IDF officer said. "The Palestinians claimed that they would be presenting documents belonging to the abducted settler, and then we will be able to judge if the story is true."

A number of teams, including negotiators from Egypt and France, are mediating between the kidnappers and the Israeli government. Jordanian diplomats spoke last night with Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, and asked him to work toward securing the soldier's release.

The teams have stressed that the Hamas government's position is very positive, and that Haniyeh and his ministers want Shalit released.

The Egyptian team met yesterday in Gaza with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and briefed him on their activities thus far. Earlier, the team met with Palestinian Foreign Minister Mahmoud a-Zahar, whose brother, Yussef, is considered one of the leaders of Hamas' military wing.

Palestinian sources said that the current working assumption - according to information that has reached the PA - is that Shalit is being held in the area of Khan Yunis.