Text size

Senior Egyptian security officials will visit Damascus this week for talks with Hamas leaders on a prisoner exchange that could see the release of abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar reported yesterday. Egyptian-mediated talks, currently held under a heavy news blackout, have greatly intensified in recent weeks.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told officials recently that he is trying hard to bring Shalit home. If a deal for Shalit is struck, Netanyahu will have to invest even greater efforts in persuading his political partners on the right to approve the release of around 450 prisoners, most of whom were involved in major attacks that took the lives of Israeli soldiers and civilians.

Gaza-based Hamas delegates, headed by Mahmoud al-Zahar, are already in Cairo. The Egyptian media have reported that the delegation is discussing a deal for Shalit with the Egyptians, although this has been denied officially. Netanyahu's envoy to the Shalit talks, Haggai Hadas, is also in Cairo.

Hamas said its delegation seeks to discuss resuming reconciliation talks with its Palestinian rival, Fatah, and has nothing to do with the talks on Shalit.

According to Al-Akhbar, the Egyptian delegation will include Mohammed Ibrahim, the deputy of top negotiator Omar Suleiman.

The Egyptian delegation is also set to visit the Palestinian territories to try to remove obstacles to closing a deal. But Egyptian sources say a deal is not imminent and "political decisions and major concessions are required by both sides," the paper said.

Zahar is also expected to head for Damascus soon to meet with the leader of Hamas' political bureau, Khaled Meshal, and other senior Hamas officials. Zahar said a few days ago that Hamas had not submitted a new list of prisoners to Egypt in place of an earlier list of 450 names.

Hamas reportedly expects Israel to soften its position and allow some of those intended for release to go home to the West Bank rather than be deported. Israel has so far agreed to release only 325 of the prisoners on Hamas' list and wants dozens of them to be exiled.

Political sources in Jerusalem on Monday denied that the sides are close to an agreement, describing as "spin" a report by the Palestinian news agency Ma'an that Israel and Hamas recently resumed intensive negotiations on a deal.

The Israeli sources said the report came from Islamic Jihad activists seeking to foil any progress toward the release of the kidnapped soldier.

Egyptian sources also denied any significant developments on a swap for Shalit, who was abducted by Palestinian militants in a cross-border raid into Israel more than three years ago. The sources said the parties had not exchanged any new lists of Palestinian prisoners to be released, nor have high-level delegations from either side visited Egypt to discuss the case.

However, the Egyptians added, senior Hamas representatives, including some from its military wing, Iz al-Din al-Qassam, will arrive in Cairo in the coming days for renewed talks on Shalit.

Hamas spokesmen in the Gaza Strip also said they were unaware of any progress in the talks.

Meanwhile, according to Channel 10 filmmakers Orly Vilnai and Guy Meroz, Hadas is preventing letters by cultural figures in Israel from being delivered to Shalit. Among the letter writers are conductor Zubin Mehta, singer Shlomo Artzi and actor and television presenter Zvika Hadar.

Some of the letters were presented on a part of Vilnai and Meroz's program entitled "Letters to Gilad," and were prepared on a disk to be delivered by an intermediary in Gaza to the son of Hamas leader in Gaza Ismail Haniyeh.

However, Vilnai and Meroz said Israeli security officials at the Erez crossing prevented them from handing the letters over to the intermediary. The two say they were told the move required Hadas' approval.

They then approached the advocacy group for Shalit's release and the Prime Minister's Bureau to ask Hadas to approve the transfer, but Hadas did not respond. The Prime Minister's Bureau said it does not comment on any issue involving Gilad Shalit.