Erekat: PA, PLO back Schalit prisoner swap

Hamas reports good prog

The Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) would back an Israeli-Hamas prisoner swap deal for the release of captured IDF soldier Gilad Schalit, according to chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. Erekat was quoted by Israel Radio Friday as saying that the Palestinian leadership "supports the release of prisoners but believes that they must be allowed to stay in the Palestinian territories because the Palestinians are opposed to the principle of deportation." Erekat also called for Tanzim leader Marwan Barghouti to be included in any swap deal. On Thursday, meanwhile, a senior Hamas official said that progress has been made in secret negotiations to reach a prisoner exchange agreement with Israel for Schalit's release. This was the first time in the past week that a top Hamas official had voiced optimism regarding the prospects of reaching a deal. Hamas leaders and spokesmen have been instructed not to make any public statements about the details of the in camera discussions. Ziad al-Thatha, Deputy Prime Minister of the Hamas government, said there was "good progress" in the negotiations and expressed hope that hundreds of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails would soon be reunited with their families. Al-Thatha refused to disclose further information about the current status of negotiations, which he said were continuing despite "difficulties." He added that representatives of the armed groups holding Schalit were conducting the negotiations with German and Egyptian mediators. "Our government is supporting these groups," he said. "We all want to see a prisoner exchange agreement as soon as possible so our prisoners can be freed." Meanwhile, Hamas denied a newspaper report that claimed Schalit had been transferred from the Gaza Strip to Egypt in preparation for a prisoner exchange with Israel. "This report is untrue and does not even deserve any attention," said Osama Hamdan, the Hamas representative in Lebanon. Hamdan, who is one of the top Hamas political leaders, said that secret negotiations to reach an agreement on a prisoner swap were continuing. However, he would not say whether progress had been made, citing that Hamas would not make any public statements until a deal is finalized. The allegation that Schalit was in Egypt appeared in the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Jarida at the same time that the German mediator arrived in the Gaza Strip for talks with Hamas leaders on a prisoner exchange. According to the report, Schalit was brought to Egypt a few days ago by Ahmed Ja'abri, the commander of Hamas' armed wing, Izaddin al-Kassam. Abu Obaidah, spokesman for Izaddin al-Kassam, refused to comment on the Kuwaiti report. He said that he was committed to a decision by the Hamas leadership to refrain from discussing the issue of Schalit in public. However, Abu Mujahed, spokesman for the Popular Resistance Committees, an alliance of various radical armed groups, announced that there was "nothing new" regarding the negotiations to achieve a prisoner exchange agreement with Israel. He attributed the lack of progress to Israel's refusal to "succumb to the demands of Schalit's captors." At press time, Schalit's parents had not received word of progress on the deal to release their son, who has been held captive by Hamas in Gaza since June 2006. During the last week Noam and Aviva Schalit have lobbied cabinet ministers in hopes of swaying them to support a deal. It is expected that the cabinet would approve a proposed deal. Tovah Lazaroff contributed to this report.