Egypt-Hamas negotiations resume over Shalit release; Shaath says deal is close

Nasrallah's stock continues to rise in Palestinian streets.

Egypt has resumed its efforts to persuade the Palestinians to release kidnapped IDF soldier Cpl. Gilad Shalit, who is being held in the Gaza Strip, amid unconfirmed reports that Israel has agreed to release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. Meanwhile, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip continued to express their full support for Hizbullah and its secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah. In Ramallah, one of the main streets has been named after the Lebanese town of Bint Jbail in honor of the Hizbullah gunmen who managed to kill eight IDF soldiers last week. Video tapes and discs containing Hizbullah literature and footage have flooded the markets of several Palestinian cities. A new song hailing Nasrallah as the "Hawk of Lebanon" and "Master of the Resistance" has become one of the most consumed products, in addition to Nasrallah's posters and Hizbullah flags. Former Palestinian Authority information minister Nabil Shaath claimed that Israel had expressed its readiness to release some 700 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Shalit. He said negotiations to resolve the crisis had reached an "advanced stage" as Egyptian diplomats and security officials based in the Gaza Strip resumed their mediation efforts on Tuesday. According to Shaath, who is one of the top Fatah leaders in the Gaza Strip, the Palestinians and Israel have agreed on most of the details of the alleged prisoner swap, but were still negotiating about the identity of the prisoners who would be freed. He said that in any case, most of the female prisoners held in Israel would be released. The Egyptians had suspended their mediation efforts to protest against Hamas's refusal to accept a proposal by President Hosni Mubarak, according to which the soldier would be released in return for guarantees that Israel would release hundreds of prisoners at a later stage. The proposal is aimed at avoiding a situation where Israel would be seen as having succumbed to the demands of the kidnappers. The Egyptian mediators met with PA Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, who expressed his backing for ending the crisis peacefully. Haniyeh told the Egyptian officials that the crisis could be resolved only after Israel ends its military operations against the Palestinians and agrees to a mutual cease-fire that would be followed by negotiations over a possible prisoner swap. Haniyeh told reporters in Gaza City on Wednesday that Israel was waging an "insane and open war on the Palestinians and Lebanese." This war, he added, extends beyond the release of Shalit and the other two soldiers held by Hizbullah. "Israel and the US are waging a carefully planned war against our people and the Lebanese," he said. Referring to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's vision of a new Middle East, Haniyeh scoffed at the idea, saying the Americans wanted to create a new situation where they would dictate to the Arabs their own policies. "They want a new Middle East where Israel would become the only military superpower in the region," he added. "But our people will scuttle their schemes."