Palestinian Group: Resolution to Shalit Kidnap Close at Hand

The Popular Resistance Committees [PRC], a group involved in the abduction of Corporal Gilad Shalit, announced yesterday in the Gaza Strip that a resolution would be effected in "a number of days."

For their part, senior Israeli security sources expressed doubts that a breakthrough had been achieved among Palestinian factions involved and urged caution, citing previous experience in talks for the release of Israelis.

The same sources pointed to the failure of Khaled Meshal, the head of the Hamas political office in Damascus, to arrive for pre-arranged talks in Cairo with Egyptian negotiators. Meshal is considered to be key to any move forward on the issue of Shalit, the likelihood of a Palestinian prisoner release, and the thorny subject of the establishment of a Palestinian national unity government.

PRC spokesman Abu Mujahed said the three Palestinian factions involved in the raid and abduction of Shalit last June have agreed to the deal put together by Egypt. According to the deal, Shalit will be freed in return for the release of Palestinian prisoners held in Israel.

A Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip, Osama al-Mazini, said in response to the PRC announcement that "significant progress has indeed been achieved in the matter of Gilad Shalit, but it is still too early to say if the deal will be carried out soon. Israel has agre ed on the number of prisoners that will be released but we must also agree on their identity and only then can we say that there is an agreement."

Al-Mazini was responsible for liaising between the Hamas military wing and the Egyptian mediators in the negotiations for Shalit's release, and as such his comments are considered highly reliable.

1,000 Palestinian prisoners

Other Palestinian sources said that a prisoner exchange would involve 1,000 Palestinians held in Israel, and would be carried out in stages.

However, Abu Obeida, a spokesman on behalf of Izz al-Din al-Qassam, Hamas' military wing, said that the negotiations over the Israeli soldier were at a standstill. Abu Obeida claimed that Israel is delaying its response to the demands posed by the kidnappers. He also insisted that his statements did not contradict those of the PRC.

The failure of Meshal to arrive for meetings in Cairo has clearly dented any hopeful prognoses for a quick release. According to Salah al-Bardawil, a senior Hamas figure in the Gaza Strip, there is no point in holding talks in Cairo if there is no agreement on the principles of the exchange and the establishment of a unity government.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip reached another agreement yesterday to put an end to the violent incidents between Fatah and Hamas.

The Gaza Strip will be at the center of a security cabinet meeting on Wednesday, in which a decision will be made on Israel's response to the continued launching of Qassam rockets and the smuggling of weapons from Sinai using tunnels.

Political sources in Jerusalem said over the weekend that during the meeting operational decisions will be taken, but the IDF is unlikely to initiate a broad operation in the Gaza Strip prior to the visit of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to Washington in two weeks.

The meeting of the security cabinet was postponed because of the coalition enlargement talks.

During the cabinet meeting last week, ministers Eli Yishai (Shas) and Rafi Eitan (Pensioners' Party) have called for a takeover of the Philadelphi Route to put an end to the smuggling operations.