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Israeli diplomatic sources in Jerusalem denied claims made by Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh on Thursday regarding an imminent prisoner exchange deal.
According to the sources, the failure to reach a decision Thursday to release a symbolic number of Palestinian prisoners before the Id al-Adha holiday on Saturday is linked to problems that have arisen in efforts to free kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Shalit.
In fact, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had intended to announce the release of prisoners in honor of Id al-Adha at a speech he gave Thursday at a graduation ceremony for air force pilots in the south. The original text of the speech, which was placed on the prime minister's Web site, read: "The government accepted my recommendation to release a symbolic number of Palestinian prisoners as is customary every year before the Festival of the Sacrifice [Id al-Adha]."
Olmert did not deliver that line. While officials in Olmert's office said the omitted sentence had been written by "mistake," there apparently were intentions to announce the release of prisoners, an idea withdrawn at the last minute because of problems connected to the freeing of Shalit. Government officials said a meeting Olmert had planned Thursday with security officials to talk about a symbolic release of prisoners before the holiday was called off.
Haniyeh's remarks sparked a wave of speculation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip about an impending prisoner exchange between Israel and the Palestinians.
Earlier, Haniyeh phoned the wife of imprisoned Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti and told her that Israel and the Palestinians had reached an agreement on a prisoner swap.
The phone call also triggered speculation that Barghouti, who is serving a five-term life sentence, may be included in the deal. However, Barghouti's relatives and friends refused on Thursday night to discuss the issue under the pretext that "too much talk could only cause damage."
On Wednesday, a senior PA official told The Jerusalem Post that Shalit would be released "within days" after Israel agreed to release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners.
According to the official, Egypt and Jordan played a key role in brokering a deal that would lead to the release of Shalit in return for some 1,400 Palestinian prisoners. The official claimed that Shalit's captors were planning to hand him over to Egypt immediately after the release of all minors and female prisoners from Israeli jails.
Speaking to reporters at the Egyptian town of Al-Arish before flying to Saudi Arabia, Haniyeh called for exerting pressure on Israel to release Palestinian prisoners. "The case of Giald Shalit will be resolved soon on the basis of reciprocity," he said. "The Palestinians will release Shalit parallel to the release of Palestinian prisoners."
Although Haniyeh did not give a specific date for the release of Shalit, sources in his office in Gaza City said the next 48 hours could witness "dramatic developments."
The sources told the Post that Israel has agreed to release dozens of Palestinian prisoners as a goodwill gesture on the eve of the Muslim feast of Id al-Adha, which begins Saturday.
Haniyeh arrived Thursday in Saudi Arabia aboard a special plane provided by the Saudi royal family. He was accompanied by several top Hamas leaders, including Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar and Interior Minister Said Siam.
During his visit to Saudi Arabia, Haniyeh will perform the hajj [pilgrimage] to Mecca and hold talks with senior Saudi government officials. The Hamas delegation will then visit Jordan, where Haniyeh is expected to meet with PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas under the auspices of King Abdullah, who is trying to persuade the two men to put aside their differences and agree to the formation of a unity government.
Haniyeh's visit to Saudi Arabia and Jordan is seen in Ramallah as a sign of the reported breakthrough in the negotiations over the release of Shalit.
PA officials said Abbas phoned Haniyeh shortly before the latter's departure to wish him a successful pilgrimage and to greet him on the occasion of Id al-Adha. It was the first time that the two had talked since the breakdown of talks over the formation of a unity government several weeks ago.