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GAZA - Some 750 local families with relatives in Israeli prisons are hanging on every word from the media regarding a prisoner-exchange deal that may be sealed within days, if not hours.

Some 130 Gazan families with members serving life sentences are particularly tense, not knowing whether they are included in the deal.

Abdel Nasser Farauna, of the Palestinian Ministry for Prisoner Affairs in Ramallah, said it was still difficult to tell which and how many prisoners will be released in exchange for captive soldier Gilad Shalit, but he speculated the number is likely to be high. Negotiators for Hamas were careful not to leak many details of the list of prisoners they are demanding.

Farauna, himself a former prisoner in Israel, said he thinks the broader Palestinian public is less interested in the deal's details - an impression shared by A., a former political prisoner.

"The public isn't interested because it knows the deal will happen sooner or later, and it's too preoccupied with the hardships of recovering from Israel's attack," A. said.

High expectations

However, there are expectations the Shalit deal will signal progress in other issues, like opening the Gaza Strip borders to movement of people and goods, and the internal Palestinian reconciliation talks.

Farauna said that some 130 Gazan prisoners were jailed before 1994 - i.e., before the signing of the Oslo Accords. The total number of Palestinians imprisoned before 1994 is 335, including 65 Jerusalemites and Israeli citizens. Their imprisonment is considered by the Palestinian public to be one of the great failures of Fatah and the PLO. There was an expectation that the accords would stipulate release of all the prisoners, particularly as a majority belonged to Fatah, a signatory to the document. Prisoners convicted of murdering Palestinians were released, but peers convicted of killing Jews, either civilian or soldiers, became part of a separate category which Israel refused to free. The release of these prisoners via Hamas efforts would score the movement a winning point at the expense of Fatah.

Some 20 prisoners have been in jail for over 20 years. All 750 prisoners have not been allowed any family visits since June 2007, when Hamas took control of the security apparatus in the Strip. Israel barred all family visits to Gazan prisoners, despite protests by the Red Cross. Security prisoners, unlike jailed Palestinian and Israeli criminals, are also denied the right to contact their families by phone.