Hamas: Shalit Prisoner Exchange Talks Have Reached Advanced Stage

Talks over kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit have progressed thanks to the involvement of German mediators, said a Hamas spokesman in the Gaza Strip.

The spokesman, Ayman Taha, said there has been no breakthrough in the talks, however.

A delegation of senior Hamas figures, including members of its military wing, is in Cairo to meet with the heads of Egyptian intelligence.

The Palestinian News Agency Ma'an reported that the delegation included Mahmoud al-Zahar, former Hamas foreign minister and a leading hardliner, and Ahmed al-Ja'abari, head of the Hamas military wing.

The Palestinian sources said the Cairo talks were addressing the efforts to reconcile Hamas with its rival Fatah, and the creation of a unity government, among other subjects.

Representatives of Hamas' military wing Iz al-Din al-Qassam, Marwan Isa and Niza Awadallah, are in Cairo too, but only to discuss a prisoner exchange for Shalit.

Sources in the Gaza Strip say Hamas is being more flexible and may be willing to compromise on two issues that have have kept a prisoner exchange with Israel from taking place - it may be willing to ask for other prisoners in place of those Israel has refused to release, and it also may agree to Israel's demand that some of the released West Bank prisoners be exiled to Gaza or abroad, if the total number of prisoners to be freed is increased.

One sticking point is the prisoners responsible for the suicide bombings during the 1990s, which claimed a large number of lives. Hamas is demanding these prisoners be freed, but Israel is refusing.

Last week, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak revealed that Germany has been involved in the talks. The announcement came as a surprise, given the Egyptians' obvious dissatisfaction at a similar Qatari attempt to intervene in January.

Taha's comments suggest Hamas has relaxed its opposition to the Germans' role.

German mediators were involved in the exchange that brought back the bodies of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, two Israel Defense Forces reservists killed during a Hezbollah raid that sparked the Second Lebanon War in 2006.

The Palestinian sources reported the Hamas delegation reached Cairo after crossing through the Rafah crossing, under heavy Egyptian guard.

Meanwhile, about 100 demonstrators on behalf of Gilad Shalit protested in front of three prisons in Israel yesterday, blocking Palestinians who had come to visit relatives jailed for security offenses. The demonstrations lasted about an hour, and delayed the family visits.

The activists gave the Palestinians leaflets stating that Shalit's parents are entitled to visit their son, too.

Five protesters were detained by police, and several women were forcefully removed when they tried to block buses from entering the prison compounds.

The largest demonstration took place at Megiddo prison. Noam Shalit, Gilad's father, attended that protest.

The leaflets read: "You have come to visit your loved ones and we are not allowing you to exit the buses. You are wondering who we are and why we are doing this. Perhaps some of you recognize our T-shirts - we are here on behalf of Gilad Shalit. He also wants to be visited.

"Gilad has a birthday on Friday. His fourth in captivity. Without a single visit. Not his parents, not representatives of his family, and not a neutral representative. How do you feel now that we are preventing you from visiting?

"How have Gilad's parents felt for more than three years? You want your loved ones home? Tell Hamas' leaders that Gilad deserves visits, too! We are demanding conditions for Gilad like the ones your loved ones receive."

Some of the Palestinian families expressed understanding for the demonstrators. One told Noam Shalit, "You must know what happened to your son."

Noam Shalit said: "It is important the public speaks up. It is important that the protest reaches the right ears. Our aim is to encourage the leadership of Hamas to recognize that visits to Palestinian prisoners is not a given, as long as it is not a given for Gilad."

Air strike on Gaza

Meanwhile, four Palestinians were killed and nine were injured in an Israel Air Force strike on a tunnel in Rafah yesterday. The attack came after mortars were fired at Israel on Monday.