Hamas has raised the price for the release of kidnapped IDF soldier Cpl. Gilad Shalit and is now demanding 1,400 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, a senior Hamas official said Thursday.
Earlier reports had suggested that Hamas, one of three groups that have been holding Shalit in the Gaza Strip since his abduction last June, was prepared to exchange him for only a few hundred Palestinian prisoners.
Osama Hamdan, Hamas's representative in Lebanon, confirmed that Syria-based Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal was in Cairo for "crucial" talks on the possibility of conducting a prisoner exchange with Israel.
He said Mashaal was also holding talks with Egyptian government officials on the latest crisis surrounding the establishment of a Hamas-Fatah unity government.
Mashaal, who arrived unexpectedly in Cairo Wednesday night, held talks with Egyptian General Intelligence chief Gen. Omar Suleiman, who has been spearheading mediation efforts aimed at bringing about a prisoner swap between Israel and the Palestinians.
Mashaal, who is said to be in direct contact with Shalit's kidnappers, has been under immense pressure from Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to agree to a prisoner exchange with Israel. Sources close to Hamas said the three Arab countries were working toward making a prisoner exchange part of a comprehensive deal in which the Israelis and Palestinians would agree to a mutual cease-fire.
According to Hamdan, Hamas's latest initiative for ending the Shalit affair calls for the release of some 1,400 Palestinian prisoners, including all females and minors held in Israeli prisons.
The prisoners, he said, would be released in two phases: first, the females and minors and, at a later stage, other prisoners according to certain criteria that would be determined by Hamas, such as political affiliation and the time spent in prison.
Hamas has also made it clear that all its officials and legislators who were arrested after the Shalit kidnapping should be released separately and not in the context of the prisoner exchange. Shalit would be released only when Israel begins implementing the second phase of the agreement.
"We will continue to hold on to the soldier because this is the only way to guarantee that Israel will fulfill the agreement," Hamdan said. "In any case, Hamas is not in a rush to release Shalit because we know that Israel will eventually accept all our demands."
Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, who held a closed meeting with PA Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh in Gaza City Thursday, was quoted by the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper as saying that Egyptian efforts to secure the release of Shalit have been successful. Abbas did not give further details, but he pointed out that there would be no PA unity government before the Shalit case is resolved.
Expressing optimism about the prospects of the formation of a unity government, Abbas said his Fatah party and Hamas have agreed on the political platform of the new coalition.
However, he did not say whether Hamas had accepted the three conditions set by the Quartet for lifting financial sanctions imposed on the Palestinians: recognizing Israel's right to exist, renouncing terrorism and honoring all agreements that were signed between the PLO and Israel.
"We have already reached an agreement on the political platform of the new government," Abbas said. "The discussions with Hamas are now over two issues: the release of Gilad Shalit and achieving a cease-fire with Israel."
In a related development, Abbas called an emergency meeting of the Fatah central committee in Gaza City late Thursday to discuss the repercussions of the assassination attempt against prominent Fatah leader Abu Ali Shaheen, who was shot and wounded in Gaza Tuesday night by unidentified gunmen. Abbas will also brief the Fatah members on the outcome of his talks with Hamas over the formation of a unity government.
Fatah leaders have accused Hamas of standing behind the attempt on Shaheen's life, warning that such attacks will trigger an all-out confrontation between the two parties and sabotage efforts to form a unity government.
In what is seen as a retaliatory attack by Fatah, gunmen shot and seriously wounded Salah Walwil, a senior Hamas figure in Kalkilya. The shooting took place as Walwil walked out of a local mosque following dawn prayers.