Ismail Haniyeh cancels trip to Mecca

Haniyeh cancels Mecca tr

In a sign that negotiations on an Israeli prisoner exchange for captive soldier Gilad Schalit were moving forward, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh canceled a trip to Saudi Arabia for the annual Muslim pilgrimage at the last minute on Tuesday. Anticipation that hundreds of Palestinian prisoners might soon be released in a deal with Israel was so high in Gaza that Haniyeh had been asked to remain in the Gaza Strip to greet the prisoners, said a Hamas legislator in Gaza City. Meanwhile, Hamas representatives flew to Damascus on Tuesday to consult with their leadership after holding talks in Cairo with German and Egyptian mediators. The representatives, Mahmoud Zahar, Khalil al-Haya and Nizar Awadallah are scheduled to return to Cairo later this week for more meetings with the mediators. In Damascus on Tuesday, Hamas official Muhammed Nazzal said Israel still had reservations over releasing some prisoners sought by Hamas who had "long prison terms." "If Israel reacts with flexibility, it will end soon, or it will be postponed indefinitely," he said. "During the next few days the picture will become clear." A day before convening the security cabinet for its weekly meeting, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu continued to tone down expectations that an agreement was imminent. There is no deal as of yet, and I do not know if there will be one," he told reporters Tuesday. "But one thing I can tell you is that it will first go to the cabinet for approval." From Cairo to Jerusalem, Arab, Israeli and foreign officials weighed in on the matter, with statements that both raised and dampened public hopes that Schalit would be freed after 1,248 days in captivity. Chief of General Staff Lt.Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi said he hoped that Schalit would return home soon. "As the commander of the military and as the one who sent Gilad Schalit, I will make every effort to complete our mission to return Gilad home," Ashkenazi said during a tour of the South. "We do everything we can to return soldiers from their missions. Unfortunately, soldiers get wounded and killed but the IDF does not leave wounded behind." Defense Minister Ehud Barak told new recruits at the Tel Hashomer Induction Center that Israel is responsible for retrieving Schalit. "We have a deep responsibility - ethical and as commanders - to bring Gilad home in every possible and appropriate way," he said. Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer (Labor) told army radio from Turkey, "I'm very happy that this deal is heading to its conclusion very soon. Are we closer than ever? My answer is definitely affirmative." Egyptian officials said that a deal was close, but was unlikely to be sealed in the next few days, whereas Hamas spokesmen Ayman Taha and Sami Abu Zuhri expressed cautious optimism about the prospects of reaching a deal in the coming days. However, the two said it was too early to talk about a major breakthrough in the mediation efforts. Hamas has instructed its leaders and spokesmen to refrain from making public comments about the secret negotiations. As Hamas representatives headed to Damascus, the Egyptians and Germans have, meanwhile, briefed the Palestinian Authority leadership on the recent progress in their mediation efforts. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who is visiting the region, met in Jerusalem with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and in Ramallah on Tuesday with PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. Westerwelle, whose countryman Ernst Urlau has played a key role in trying to put together an agreement, would not discuss the matter when he met with journalists. He said that while he hoped an agreement would soon be in the offing, premature discussion could jeopardize any deal. He did, however, talk privately with Fayyad about the deal. Egyptian Intelligence Chief Gen. Omar Suleiman phoned senior PA officials and also briefed them on the details of the agreement. The PA leadership is worried that a prisoner exchange would bolster Hamas's standing among Palestinians. PA officials have in the past few days stepped up their rhetorical attacks on Hamas, particularly since the reports that the movement has agreed to stop firing rockets at Israel. The officials, including PA President Mahmoud Abbas, have also accused Hamas of conducting clandestine talks with Israel. Yasser Abed Rabbo, a top PLO official who also serves as an adviser to Abbas, said that Hamas was prepared to ally itself with the devil to achieve its goal of undermining the PA. He accused Hamas of adopting a hypocritical approach by talking about the need to continue the resistance against Israel while, at the same time, it was holding secret talks with Israelis and agreeing to stop rocket and missile attacks. A senior Fatah operative in Ramallah voiced concern that the release of several hundred Palestinians from Israeli jails would boost Hamas's popularity at the expense of the PA. "It would be very embarrassing for the Palestinian leadership if Hamas manages to free a large number of prisoners in return for the soldier," the official told The Jerusalem Post. "I'm not sure our leaders will be happy." Fayyad described all Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails as heroes and called for their immediate release. Addressing a conference on Palestinian prisoners, Fayyad did not make any mention of the reports regarding an imminent prisoner swap deal. "To our heroic prisoners I say, the day of freedom is near" he said. "Your freedom is part of the freedom of the homeland and people." Fayyad also saluted Amneh Muna, a female prisoner from Fatah who is serving a life sentence for her role in the abduction and murder of 16year-old Ofir Rahum at the beginning of the second intifada. His government, Fayyad said, was now seeking to rally support for international recognition of the Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails as prisoners of war. He sent his greetings to Fatah operative Marwan Barghouti, who is serving five life terms in prison and Ahmed Sa'dat, secretary-general of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine who was charged with masterminding the assassination of tourism minister Rehavam Ze'evi in 2001. It is unclear if Barghouti and Sa'dat are on the list of prisoners due to be released. Barghouti's wife on Tuesday told Channel 2 she hoped her husband would be home by next week. She added she wanted to see a "fair deal" which would also see imprisoned Palestinian women and children released. On Tuesday, three bereaved parents filed a petition to the High Court of Justice demanding that the government release the full list of the more than 1,000 prisoners that are due to be swapped for Schalit. It is expected that in the first stage of the deal, Schalit would be transferred from Gaza to Egypt, while Israel frees 450 prisoners, including those who have killed Israelis. In the second stage he would be brought back to Israel and 550 more prisoners, charged with low-level offenses, would then be freed. It is expected that the cabinet will approve such a deal, but some ministers have been cagy about their position. At a joint press conference with Westerwelle, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said needed to see all the details before taking a stand. "I will be able to deal with the issue when I know what is on the table," he said. Herb Keinon, AP and Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.