Hamas confirms progress on Schalit

Hamas confirms progress

Noam Schalit worried 248.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Noam Schalit worried 248.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Hamas confirmed on Monday that progress had been achieved in negotiations with Israel to free St.-Sgt. Gilad Schalit, even as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu tried to tone down expectations that the captive soldier would be coming home soon. As of yet, "there is no deal and no decision," Netanyahu told the Likud faction during its weekly meeting in the Knesset. He spoke amid a frenzy of media reports that Hamas and Israel were on the verge of a deal in which more than 1,400 Palestinian prisoners would be released from Israeli jails in exchange for Schalit, who has been held captive by Hamas in Gaza for 1,247 days. Late Monday, the Hamas leadership in Damascus issued a statement charging that Israel was trying to create pressure through leaks to the media. The statement said it was "too early to speak about certain results or a close agreement on the deal." In a move that fed heightened anticipation that Schalit's long ordeal would soon be over, a Hamas delegation consisting of senior officials from the Gaza Strip and Syria arrived in Cairo Monday to put the final touches on the deal. The delegation from the Gaza Strip was headed by Mahmoud Zahar, the movement's top political leader, and Ahmad Jabari, commander of Hamas's military wing, Izzadin Kassam. The two will be joined by senior Hamas representatives from Syria. The Hamas officials were scheduled to hold marathon talks with Egyptian General Intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, sources close to the movement said. Suleiman updated Defense Minister Ehud Barak Monday evening on the talks in Cairo. Earlier in the day, during a tour of Sderot, Barak said, "We owe a debt to Gilad Schalit. This is a sensitive time to talk, and we need to be prepared to take every worthy and possible step so Gilad can come home." According to Hamas sources, Schalit will most likely be handed over to the Egyptian authorities as soon as Israel releases several hundred Palestinian prisoners as the first phase of the larger deal. The sources claimed that the overall prisoner swap calls for the release of more than 1,400 prisoners from Israeli jails. They said the list presented by Hamas included the names of top Fatah operative Marwan Barghouti and Ahmad Sa'adat, secretary-general of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Israel has agreed to the release of some 160 prisoners that it had refused to free in the past, the sources claimed. Hamas leaders and spokesmen refused to comment publicly on reports regarding progress in secret negotiations to reach a prisoner swap agreement. But a Hamas legislator in the Gaza Strip said he did not rule out the possibility that Schalit would be released soon after the Muslim feast of Id al-Adha, which begins on Friday. The legislator said Egyptian and German mediators were still trying to solve the problem of Israeli-Arab prisoners who appeared on Hamas's list. "Israel does not want to include Israeli Arab citizens in the deal," he said. Ahmad Bahr, a senior Hamas official in the Gaza Strip, hinted that a deal with Israel was imminent. Addressing families of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, Bahr said, "Be assured that the light of freedom is nearing; be assured that you are about to be reunited with your sons." Bahr said the Palestinians would soon celebrate the release of many prisoners, including some who were serving lengthy sentences or life terms. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister's Office issued a statement Monday saying that much of the information coming from abroad was not based on anything concrete and in some cases was deliberately misleading. "The efforts to free Gilad Schalit are continuing [constantly] away from the camera, and we have no intention of discussing the matter further," the statement said. At the Likud faction meeting, Netanyahu spoke of other matters until prompted to bring up the subject by MK Tzipi Hotovely. The reason there was no discussion in the faction about the issue, Netanyahu said, was simply that there was still no deal. "It is not clear yet what is happening on the other side with their various demands," he said. "It will become clear with time." Until then, Netanyahu said, there was no need "to open a theoretical discussion, as long as it is not clear what they are proposing, and to what we can agree." Netanyahu said one thing that was clear was the value Israel placed on bringing its soldiers back home "safe and sound," even if it meant risking lives. There are special units in the army whose job it is to go into the line of fire to extract soldiers in danger, he said. "This is an important value in Judaism, the country and the IDF," he said, emphasizing that he was speaking on a theoretical level. When the time came to have a public discussion, Netanyahu said, the issue would be brought to the cabinet and the Knesset. It's expected that such a deal would pass the cabinet by a wide margin, a source close to Netanyahu said Monday. Schalit's parents, Noam and Aviva, were in the Knesset on Monday to lobby ministers to support a deal. They met with ministers Yuli Edelstein, Gilad Erdan, Benny Begin, Yossi Peled, Dan Meridor and Stas Meseznikov. Shimshon Leibman, who accompanied the Schalits and who heads the Campaign to Free Gilad said that the trip to the Knesset had been planned in advance of reports on a breakthrough. Neither he nor Noam Schalit would divulge the content of the meetings. "We think this is not time for pattering, but for deeds," Noam Schalit said at the Knesset, sitting next to Edelstein, with whom he was later to meet in private. "We expect and want to see Gilad home after so many days, weeks, months and years, but that's not new," Schalit said. "We wish we had something new to say, but we don't." Earlier on Monday, the captive soldier's parents and brother Yoel spoke with negotiator Hagai Hadas at the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv, in a previously scheduled meeting. Upon exiting the meeting, Noam Schalit told the media he had nothing to say, and when asked if the talk had been interesting, said, "I've had more interesting conversations in my lifetime." Liebman said, "We hope the rumors will turn into truth, and that we will see Gilad come home soon." Yaakov Katz, Gil Hoffman, Jerusalem Post staff and AP contributed to this report.