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For the first time in quite a while there was cautious optimism in Jerusalem Saturday night about the possible release of kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit, with Channel 10 reporting Saturday that there has been "significant" progress in negotiations for his release.
According to the report, meetings some 10 days ago prompted a compromise that a "few hundred" prisoners would be released.
Israel's offer had previously been to free 130 prisoners, while Hamas demanded the release of 1,000. However, decisions remain to be made on which prisoners Israel will free in exchange for Schalit.
The Palestinians are expected to submit a list of names, and discussions are likely to take several more weeks, Channel 2 reported.
There is a growing sense in Jerusalem that "things are closer," and that the sides are "definitely getting somewhere" toward agreement on a deal that would bring about his release. There was even estimation that the sides were three-quarters of the way toward an agreement.
This cautious optimism is due both to the fact that talks on this matter have been taking place for some seven months, and a feeling that at some point they were bound to yield some kind of results, and also a result of the Hamas-Fatah Mecca agreement.
Damascus-based Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, speaking at a press conference in Cairo on Friday, appealed to Noam Schalit to pressure the Israeli government, saying his son s release was being delayed by Israel.
Asked whether the soldier would be released, Mashaal said that "efforts are still under way with our Egyptian brother [Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak] and I cannot say more than that at this stage. The ball is in the court of the Israeli leaders.
Mashaal, meanwhile, expressed disappointment that the Quartet failed to lift its embargo on the PA government when it met Wednesday in Berlin.
Mashaal appeared in particular to criticize US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who in Berlin said that Washington would postpone any decisions about lifting the blockade, until the Hamas-Fatah power-sharing government takes hold.
"The postponement...is an evidence that the American position is not convincing," Mashaal told reporters at the end of his three-day visit to Egypt where he discussed the accord brokered in Mecca, earlier this month.
In Berlin, Rice had reiterated the Quartet s demand that any new Palestinian government agreed between Hamas and Fatah must recognize Israel, something Hamas has refused to do.
"We will not change our position whatever time it will take," Mashaal said, adding that the "international community should not press too hard on the Palestinian people."
"We will not bend to the American stick. The Americans should change their position, they should not freeze the international community's position," he said.
Mashaal has pushed for an immediate lift to the embargo despite the US and Israeli opposition. "Unjust conditions have been imposed on us and they (the Quartet) are pouring more fuel on the fire," Mashaal also said. "The international community has no other option but to respect what the Palestinians have chosen."
Mashaal also urged all Arab countries to support the Mecca agreement as a means of quickly ending the embargo. He also said that "Arabs are capable of breaking the blockade, there is Arab money that we want to get into Palestine, the money is there, and we demand to get it in."
Mashaal is to fly this weekend to Moscow to seek Russian support for ending the embargo. Russia is believed to be the member of the Quartet most sympathetic to the Mecca deal as being sufficient for a resumption of aid.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia - which has been increasingly praised for its moderate role in the region - issued a statement Saturday "condemning demolition and excavation works carried out by Israeli occupation in al-Aksa Mosque and calling on the world community to firmly intervene to stop this aggression."
Saudi Foreign Minister Nizar bin Obaid Madani, speaking about the excavations at the Mughrabi Gate outside the Temple Mount at a meeting of the Organization of Islamic conference in Saudi Arabia, "called on the world community to halt this aggression and firmly confront these practices aiming to tamper with the religious and civilization (sic) identity of Al-Quds Al-Sharif [holy Jerusalem]."
Regarding the diplomatic process, Madani - according to the statement - "noted that the Kingdom demanded that all efforts be intensified, ranks be united, stances be coordinated and all pressures be practiced to revive the peace process and emphasized that just and comprehensive peace is the only way that enables the Palestinian people to set up their independent state with Al-Quds as its capital, to regain occupied Arab territories and to achieve security and stability in the region."