(photo credit: AP)
Hamas on Monday rejected reports that progress had been made in a deal with Israel to secure the release of abducted IDF soldier Gilad Schalit.
Israel Radio quoted Osama al-Zeini, identified as the Hamas official in charge of the Schalit issue, as saying there were no signs that a prisoner exchange deal was near. According to al-Zeini, Israel had not yet agreed to free all the prisoners on Hamas's list, and the group did not intend to back down from its demands.
He added that Schalit had been abducted in order to secure the release of prisoners served lengthy prison terms.
Army Radio had reported earlier that Israel and Hamas have reached an agreement on the identities of 230 Palestinian prisoners to be freed as part of the deal.
Al-Zeini's remarks seemed to correlate with the report, which stated that disputes remained regarding 120 additional prisoners the group is demanding be freed in the first stage of the deal - prisoners Israel has thus far refused to release.
Progress in the negotiations was reportedly made after a decision by a special ministerial committee to relax the criteria for defining a prisoner with "blood on his hands." Initially, Israel was only willing to release 44 prisoners on the Hamas list.
Nevertheless, the criteria change needs cabinet approval and it is not certain that ministers will approve the move, especially in light of Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) head Yuval Diskin's vehement opposition.
In closed discussions, Army Radio reported, Diskin has come out fiercely against the plan, calling it "blackmail that will lead to additional abductions," that the government must not give in to.
Diskin's objections grew even stronger following the proposal by the ministerial committee, led by Vice Premier Haim Ramon, to release even those Palestinians who fall in the category of prisoners with "blood on their hands."
Meanwhile, diplomatic officials quoted by Army Radio said that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert would not present changes to the criteria for the release of prisoners "with blood on their hands" to the government's approval until a prisoner swap with Hamas is finalized.