By JPOST.COM STAFF
A Hamas delegation led by senior official Mahmoud Zahar left for Damascus on Tuesday afternoon in order to discuss with the organization's leadership in Syria recent progress made toward a potential prisoner exchange deal with Israel.
According to various reports, the Gaza delegation met with Hamas leaders on Tuesday evening.
Earlier on Tuesday, the delegation met in Cairo with the German mediator, taking negotiations to release captured IDF soldier Gilad Schalit a step further.
Egyptian officials said later in the day that a deal was close, but was unlikely to be sealed in the next few days. They added that while Hamas was still demanding the release of Fatah-Tanzim leader Marwan Barghouti and PFLP head Ahmed Sa'adat, Israel was showing increasing flexibility.
The officials were speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Speaking to TV reporters, Barghouti's wife expressed hope that her husband would be released soon through a "fair deal" which would also see imprisoned Palestinian women and children released.
Meanwhile, Israel Radio reported that during a BBC Arabic interview, senior Hamas official Khalil al-Haya accused Israel of "dragging its feet" and releasing "distorted information" when faced with pressure to sign an agreement to release Schalit.
Lowering expectations of Schalit's imminent release, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday morning that no deal had been made, and that he did not know when such an agreement might be reached.
"There is no conclusion, no decision, and no deal," he said.
In statements made at Israel's National Police headquarters, Netanyahu said that "if and when a deal becomes apparent, [we won't make any backroom deal]. The decision will be brought to the government for a decision."
The prime minister went on to say that the issue of Schalit's release would be open to the Israeli public and its ministers to debate.
Former minister and Mossad official Rafi Eitan assessed on Tuesday evening that Barghouti would not be released within the framework of a prisoner exchange deal to free Schalit.
Speaking to Army Radio, Eitan said that Hamas "are also opposed to his release â€¦ as he is likely to become their fierce opponent."
Eitan stated that two outstanding issues were preventing negotiations from coming to a close, chiefly "which prisoners will be expelled from the West Bank to Gaza" and continued disagreement over three names on the list of prisoners presented to Israel by Hamas.
Tuesday's statements come amid a flurry of speculations pertaining to an imminent deal between Israel and Schalit's captors. The lack of concrete details, in particular regarding the nature of a possible prisoner swap, has become a source of consternation among some Israeli citizens.
One such group is of bereaved parents of terror victims, who filed a petition with the High Court of Justice on Tuesday, demanding that the prime minister publish the details of a planned deal for the release of Schalit in return for incarcerated Hamas terrorists.
The parents are demanding that the state publicize the conditions by which prisoners in Israeli custody would be freed in exchange for Schalit's release.
In the petition, the three bereaved parents, Ron Kerman, Yossi Zur and Yossi Mendellevich, whose children were killed in a Haifa bus explosion in 2003, along with the Almagor Terror Victims Association, claim that the use of censorship by the government is illegal and is preventing a public discourse from taking place on the details of a possible prisoner swap between Israel and Hamas.
Meanwhile, Defense Minister Ehud Barak weighed in on the Schalit issue, saying on Tuesday that the State of Israel, and he as head of the defense establishment, had a moral and military responsibility, to bring the soldier home in any possible and conceivable way.
Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer (Labor) was straightforward in raising the hopes of Schalit's release, when he said earlier Tuesday that Israel was "closer than ever" to reaching a deal for the captured soldier.
"I'm very happy that this deal is heading to its conclusion very soon. Are we closer than ever? My answer is definitely affirmative," Ben-Eliezer told Army Radio from Ankara, where he is heading a delegation focusing on Israel and Turkey's bilateral economic relations.
Also on Tuesday, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad called on Israel to immediately release Palestinian officials and high-profile prisoners such as Barghouti and Sa'adat, Israel Radio reported.
According to the report, Fayyad also called for the release from prison of Palestinian minors, some of whom are serving sentences for murder
Fayyad stated that the PA was striving for international recognition of Palestinian prisoners in Israel as prisoners of war, stressing that peace between the jailed and their jailers was inconceivable.
Visiting German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle refused to comment on the status of the negotiations. "I can simply express the hope that the talks will lead to a good and humane solution," was all he said during a stop in the West Bank.
AP contributed to this report
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