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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
An agreement has been reached with Hamas over the number of prisoners Israel will release in return for Cpl. Gilad Schalit, and the exchange may take place in the coming weeks, The Jerusalem Post has learned.
According to defense officials, the prisoner swap will be conducted in three stages. Israel will first release prisoners as a gesture to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. Schalit will then be released into Egyptian custody, and only then will Israel release several hundred additional prisoners, mostly affiliated with Hamas.
"The details have been agreed upon and the last issues are being wrapped up," one senior official said.
According to the officials, the Egyptian military delegation in the Gaza Strip led by General Burhan Hamed has played a key role in mediating between Israel and Hamas, to the point that they are believed to have been in direct contact with Schalit's abductors.
Officials expressed concern, however, that a vacation taken this week by Hamed and his second-in-command would postpone the exchange, which, they said, could take place as early as next week. According to the officials, without Egypt's direct involvement, the deal would never have been reached.
"They are responsible for keeping the Schalit issue on the Arab world's agenda," another official said.
While Israel has agreed in principle on the number of prisoners it will release in exchange for Schalit, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) chief Yuval Diskin have yet to finalize the list's "top 10."
The Palestinians have asked for specific prisoners, and Israel is still considering their release.
Officials in the Prime Minister's Office, meanwhile, denied that the meeting planned for next week between Olmert and Abbas has anything to do with Schalit, although there has been speculation to that effect, since the meeting is taking place before the establishment of a PA unity government.
Two weeks ago, officials in the Prime Minister's Office voiced cautious optimism for the first time over the possible release of Schalit, saying there was significant progress in negotiations.
At the time, the officials said he could be freed within a couple of weeks. The talks were continuing, the officials said on Wednesday, and there had been progress, but there was nothing imminent.
The officials also denied that the furor in Egypt over allegations that IDF troops killed Egyptian POWs during the Six Day War was affecting the role the Egyptians were playing.
The officials said the negotiations with Hamas were being directed by Egyptian Intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, while the furor over the allegations was being fanned by the Egyptian opposition and media.
Rather than dealing with Schalit, the officials in the Prime Minister's Office said the upcoming meeting between Olmert and Abbas would concentrate on easing hardships for the Palestinians on the one hand, and "seeing how the Palestinians could better fight violence" on the other.
The officials said it would be made clear to Abbas that if more were not done to stop the firing of Kassam rockets from the Gaza Strip, Israel would not be able to continue with its policy of military restraint. Olmert was also expected to tell Abbas that there could be no extension of the cease-fire to the West Bank until the Palestinians respect it in Gaza.
The officials stressed that the upcoming Olmert-Abbas meeting, the third in three months, was not a dramatic "summit," but part of an ongoing effort to "keep the lines of communication open." Israeli officials said the meeting was scheduled for next week, but would not confirm Palestinian reports that it would take place on Sunday.
Also on Wednesday, OC Southern Command Maj.-Gen. Yoav Galant said at a briefing for foreign diplomats that Iran was helping Hamas upgrade its military capabilities by providing technology, funding and direct military training to Palestinian terrorists throughout the Middle East.
Galant said Hamas had taken advantage of Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip to build up its strength. Using their newfound ability to travel abroad, Hamas operatives have been going back and forth to hostile countries for training, he said.
"They are sending activists to Syria, Lebanon and to Iran," Galant said, "and the opposite [also happens]. People from Iran come to inspect the situation in the area, give them the proper training and coaching, examine them and see if they hit the targets they gave them."
Asked to elaborate, Galant would not say whether Iranian agents have visited Gaza.
"The Iranians don't have to come themselves to see what the situation is. If there is a Palestinian who is connected to Hizbullah and working for Iran and is moving to the Iranian side, learning methods, getting orders, and transferring them to the Palestinian side, that is good enough for me to explain the situation," he said.
Galant said the cease-fire in Gaza was a tactical move for Hamas to strengthen itself. While observing the truce, Israel has military plans prepared, he said.
"We prefer to give a chance to the cease-fire at present. But we have to prepare ourselves for a war situation in the future," he said. He did not elaborate.
AP contributed to the report.â€¢