Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, who is on a visit to Italy, announced on Thursday that he had enough reason to believe that kidnapped IDF soldier Cpl. Gilad Shalit would be released very soon.
Abbas was speaking to reporters in Rome after talks with Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi.
"I told the prime minister that as far as the question of the abducted Israeli soldier is concerned efforts are undergoing continuously that lead us to believe that the solution will be imminent," he said.
Shalit was abducted on June 25, during a Palestinian attack against IDF forces surrounding the Gaza Strip. Two soldiers were killed in the attack.
However, the armed wing of Hamas, Izaddin al-Kassam, which is believed to be holding Shalit together with other groups in the Gaza Strip, denied that it had agreed to release the soldier. The group said it did not know what Abbas was talking about and that Shalit would be released only after Israel meets all the demands of the kidnappers.
Earlier, PA officials said several Palestinian factions, including Hamas and Fatah, are preparing to announce a new initiative that would result in the release of Shalit and a mutual cease-fire with Israel.
PA Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, who is said to be one of the driving forces behind the initiative, met in Gaza City on Thursday with leaders of 12 Palestinian factions in a bid to win their backing for the move. Haniyeh is eager to end the crisis to avoid the collapse of his government.
The initiative calls for an immediate halt to Israeli military operations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In return, the Palestinians will announce a new hudna (truce) and release Shalit as part of a prisoner swap with Israel.
"This is a very serious Palestinian political initiative," said Salah Bardaweel, a Hamas legislator from the Gaza Strip.
Bardaweel is part of a seven-member parliamentary committee that has been entrusted with formulating the initiative. The other six members are Saeb Erekat, Ziad Abu Amr, Abdullah Abdullah, Nabil Shaath, Mustafa Barghouti and Faraj al-Ghul.
Bardaweel said he and his colleagues were holding discussions with Abbas and Haniyeh in an attempt to reach an agreement on the details of the initiative. He said the final draft of the initiative would be brought before the Palestinian Legislative Council for approval.
The new initiative comes amid reports that Hamas has softened its position with regards to the case of Shalit.
Former PA security commander Jibril Rajoub, who serves as an advisor to Abbas, said he expected Shalit to be released sometime next week.
Rajoub claimed that Hamas has agreed to release Shalit on condition that Israel stopped its military operations and freed a number of Palestinian prisoners.
He said that Hamas was now discussing whether it should accept Egyptian and Turkish assurances that Israel would release Palestinian prisoners after Shalit is returned home. "They have asked for time to study the possibility of accepting these guarantees" he added.
"The war in Lebanon has apparently led Hamas to reconsider its position," a senior PA official in Ramallah told The Jerusalem Post. "They see that the international community, including some Arab countries, have come out in public against Hizbullah and they don't want to find themselves in the same situation."
Another official pointed out that Hamas is under growing pressure from the Palestinian public to resolve the case of Shalit because of Israel's ongoing military attacks, which have claimed the lives of at least 130 Palestinians in the past five weeks.