By KHALED ABU TOAMEH
The Hamas leadership in Syria decided on Wednesday to suspend negotiations for the release of IDF soldier Gilad Schalit until after the Muslim feast of Id al-Adha, which begins on Friday and lasts for four days, sources close to Hamas in Gaza City and Damascus said.
The decision to suspend the negotiations coincided with allegations by a senior Hamas official, Khalil al-Haya, that Israel was hindering a prisoner exchange agreement between the two sides because of its refusal to release all prisoners demanded by Hamas in return for Schalit.
"Israel still hasn't accepted the demands of Schalit's captors," Haya said. "We hold Israel responsible for the delay in reaching a prisoner exchange agreement."
His announcement came shortly after a senior Hamas delegation from the Gaza Strip held marathon talks with Hamas leaders in Damascus about the latest developments surrounding the Schalit case.
The delegation was headed by Mahmoud Zahar, one of the prominent Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip, who is in charge of the movement's armed wing, Izzadin Kassam, whose members are holding Schalit.
Zahar and two other Hamas officials traveled to Damascus from Cairo, where they met with a German mediator and Egyptian security officials involved in the secret negotiations to achieve a prisoner exchange deal with Israel. The Hamas delegation was scheduled to return to Cairo late Wednesday.
A Hamas legislator said the delegation would convey the movement's "reservations" about parts of the German and Egyptian-brokered prisoner exchange agreement.
He said that Israel's refusal to release four of Hamas's top operatives was the main thing preventing the signing of a deal. He named the four as Hasan Salameh, Abbas al-Sayyed, Ibrahim Hamed and Abdallah Barghouti, who together were responsible for the murder of hundreds of Israelis during the second intifada.
The Hamas legislator also claimed that Israel was refusing to include Fatah operative Marwan Barghouti and the secretary-general of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Ahmad Sa'adat, in a deal.
"We can't say that the negotiations have failed," he added. "But we can only talk about a number of obstacles that are delaying an agreement."
A Hamas spokesman in the Gaza Strip said that another sticking point was Israel's refusal to include Israeli Arabs in a prisoner swap. Hamas is demanding the release of dozens of prisoners with Israeli citizenship or who live in Jerusalem and hold Israeli-issued ID cards.
The spokesman said that Hamas was also opposed to Israel's demand that most of the prisoners who would be released in the deal be deported to Arab or European countries.
Kadoura Fares, a Fatah legislator and activist in the West Bank, said he believed that the two sides were very close to achieving a deal despite the talk about difficulties and obstacles. He claimed that Israel was trying to "extort" the Palestinians in a last-minute bid to "minimize" their achievements.
Barghouti's wife Fadwa also expressed optimism that a deal would be reached in the coming days. She said Hamas leaders had promised her that they would not strike any deal with Israel that did not include her husband.
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