Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has decided to send former PA Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala) to Damascus for talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad to further his efforts to release kidnapped IDF soldier Cpl. Gilad Shalit, PA officials here revealed on Thursday. The decision was taken after a meeting with Abbas on Wednesday night in his office with PLO and Fatah leaders, the officials told The Jerusalem Post. A high-ranking member of the IDF General Staff said Thursday that Damascus-based Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal was the "key" to the release of Shalit, who he said was still being held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip. "Everyone understands that the final decision will be made by Mashaal in Syria," the officer said. He added that the Hamas leader, was under pressure on the one side by moderate elements such as Abbas to release Shalit and on the other side by more extremist elements like Syria and Iran to hold on to the soldier. The ongoing military operations in the Gaza Strip were, however, having the right effect, the officer claimed, and were creating pressure on Mashaal to release Shalit. "As long as the military operations continue, the pressure will keep up on Mashaal since the people in Gaza are suffering," he said. Meanwhile, a senior official in Abbas's office quoted the PA chairman as telling American and European officials this week that Shalit "was likely to spend next Saturday [September 23] with his family." The official said he was unaware of plans to hold a meeting between Qurei and Mashaal in Damascus. "We believe that key is in Assad's hands and Mashaal will do whatever the Syrians tell him," he explained. The high-ranking officer said Shalit was no longer an asset for the Palestinians but had turned into a burden on the population in the Gaza Strip. At least 228 Palestinians, including 16 innocent civilians, have been killed since the IDF launched its operations in the Gaza Strip following the June 25 abduction of Shalit. In addition, another 474 have been wounded, including 451 terrorists, the IDF said. Another top PA official claimed that a deal could be reached as early as Sunday. He added that Israel has already agreed to release 740 Palestinian prisoners in two phases - one before the end of this month and the second at the end of October. The official said that according to the deal, Shalit's captors will hand him over to the Egyptian authorities in the next few days. In return, Israel would release two dozen Hamas legislators and ministers who were arrested over the past three months. Despite the upbeat mood, Hamas officials in the Gaza Strip denied that a deal was imminent and insisted that the negotiations were still continuing. "These reports are baseless," said PA Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar. "I don't know of any deal that has been reached to conduct a prisoner exchange with Israel." Abu Mujahed, spokesman for the Popular Resistance Committees, one of three groups that claimed responsibility for Shalit's abduction, also denied that a deal had been struck. "The reports carried in the media over the past two days are totally untrue," he told reporters in Gaza City. "The purpose of these reports is to obtain new information about the resistance groups."