Ma'an News Agency
November 25, 2009 - 1:00am

Hamas’ senior-most leader Khalid Mash’al is expected to make a decision about a proposed prisoner exchange with Israel on Wednesday.

A delegation of senior Hamas leaders were reported to be in Damascus Tuesday night, where Mash’al and other top Hamas figures in exile are based. They are reportedly discussing whether to go forward with a deal in which resistance groups in Gaza would release an Israeli soldier held in the Strip in return for some 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.

The Israeli daily Haaretz reported that Mash’al’s pronouncement on the issue will be the linchpin for a deal as far as the Palestinian side is concerned.

“On the Palestinian side, Mash’al is the key - that is known. Now he is in his favorite position. The Gazans are flocking to him like pilgrims, and his office will be the one to issue the Hamas response,” the newspaper said.

The newspaper said Mash’al has previously held a hard line on the Shalit issue and wondered whether he would bend to a compromise.

The talks follow days of frenzied speculation in the media that a prisoner exchange is imminent. Reports emerged earlier this week that Israel had eased its conditions for an exchange, for the first time approving the release of prisoners convicted of severe attacks on Israelis.

Hamas officials told Ma’an on Tuesday that the coming two days would be crucial. Negotiators appear to be aiming for a pre-Eid release.

"If a deal is not struck in the next 48 hours," a Hamas source said, it will be proof of Israeli reticence over the terms of the swap deal, and a refusal to take the talks seriously. But the same source called recent media coverage "propaganda only."

Hamas split

The London-based Arabic-language newspaper Al-Hayat reported on Wednesday that the Hamas leadership is split among itself, with hardliners calling for the release of Hamas’ complete list of prisoners, which includes some Israel flatly refuses to release. Israel even refused a Palestinian proposal to deport the objectionable prisoners to other countries, the newspaper said, citing Hamas sources.

Hamas leaders from Gaza are in Damascus after holding talks in Cairo with a German official who is mediating in the indirect negotiations with Israel.

The exchange would entail Hamas releasing Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier who was captured near the Gaza Strip by Palestinian guerrillas in 2006. Hamas and other factions involved in Shalit’s capture are demanding Israel release some of the estimated 10,000 Palestinians it holds in its prisons.

If the Hamas leadership in Damascus approves the deal, the issue would be referred back to the Israeli side. The deal would have to be approved by the Israeli cabinet. An apparent majority of the Israeli ministers are expected to vote in favor.

Also on Wednesday Israel’s the security cabinet will meet Wednesday to discuss developments on the Palestinian front, Haaretz reported.


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