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Monday, March 16, 2009

'Shalit Deal May Be Reached in Next 24 Hours'

16/03/2009 | hanan awarekeh | Almanartv

Sources close to indirect Israel-Hamas negotiations over Gilad Shalit told Israeli daily Haaretz Monday there was a real possibility that a deal for the captured Israeli soldier's release may be reached over the next 24 hours.

The Egyptian-brokered negotiations continued Monday after talks that were supposed to end Sunday night were extended for another 24 hours. The sources said while outstanding issues still remained, a number of possible solutions were being examined.

They cited as an example Israel's demand that some of the Palestinian detainees to be freed in the deal will be relocated to Syria, and not to the Palestinian territories.

According to the sources, Shin Bet security service chief Yuval Diskin and Ofer Dekel, who is Olmert's chief negotiator on the Shalit deal, may extend their stay in Cairo for a further 24 hours to continue the negotiations.

They were supposed to return from the Egyptian capital at around 8 P.M. Sunday night and report to Olmert on their indirect talks with Hamas in the Egyptian capital, but decided to stay on for a day for the same reason. Olmert's office issued a statement saying he wants to exhaust every possibility of reaching a deal.

Dekel's trip, which followed talks in the Egyptian capital last week, fueled speculation that there was still a chance for a deal before Israeli Prime Minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu forms a government, possibly by the end of the week.

Netanyahu kept silent on the issue Sunday, saying he would end his long-standing policy of not commenting on Shalit's fate only after he forms a government, which he intends to do by Thursday's deadline. "When he is prime minister, he will speak about the issue," a senior source close to the Likud leader said. "But right now there is nothing positive that can come in any direction from making any comments."

Earlier Monday, Israeli Pensioner Affairs Minister Rafi Eitan said Israel's negotiators in the talks over would likely return from Cairo with a deal. "It is possible to assume that [Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert's emissaries in Cairo will return to Israel with a deal for Shalit's return," said Eitan, speaking on Army Radio.

The negotiations were to continue Monday after talks that were supposed to end Sunday night were extended for another 24 hours. "After this everyone can express remorse and say 'I told you so,' but let's just wait another day and see what the results are," added Eitan.

"I assume that the results will be positive. If an agreement is brought for cabinet approval, I have no doubt that it will vote in favor."

Meanwhile, the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat reported Monday that the head of Hamas' military wing, Ahmed Jabri, is in Cairo heading the indirect negotiations with Israel over the Shalit's release.

The London-based paper said Jabri, who has never left the Palestinian territories before, arrived in Cairo four days ago to assume the role in the talks.

Jabri has been responsible for Shalit's wellbeing in Gaza as well as safeguarding the secrecy of his hiding place. According to the report, which is based on Palestinian sources described as "credible," senior Hamas officials Mahmoud Zahar and Nizar Awadallah are also involved in the talks.

The newspaper also reported that Israel is willing to release 300 Palestinian detainees out of 450 on a list presented by Hamas, but maintains its opposition to the remaining 150, some of whom have been convicted of involvement in attacks.

The Israeli cabinet was to have convened Monday morning to discuss the details of the deal, the first such meeting called since Shalit was taken captive in June 2006. However, that meeting has now been postponed to Tuesday.

Israeli Public Security Minister Avi Dichter, meanwhile, said on Monday that there were Palestinians jailed in Israel who were not up for release as part of a deal for Shalit.

He told Israeli Radio that Israel had "additional ways" of pressuring Hamas, adding that if the negotiations involving prisoners currently held in Israel failed, they would be renewed over detainees to be held in Israel in the future.

Abu Mujahad, a spokesman for the Popular Resistance Committees, told Haaretz Sunday that something is happening in the negotiations over Shalit, but since Israel has in the past reneged at the last minute on deals that were almost completed, neither his organization nor Hamas was willing to make any statements on the matter. The Resistance Committees are one of the three groups that originally kidnapped Shalit. Abu Mujahad was in Cairo for Egyptian-brokered reconciliation talks with the other Palestinian factions.

If the Cairo talks lead to a breakthrough, the Israeli ministers are expected to vote on Tuesday on the outlines of a prisoner swap. If a deal is presented by Olmert and supported by Dekel and Diskin, it is likely to be approved by a large majority of the cabinet.

Meanwhile, a number of Israeli Arab political figures have asked Hamas to demand that Israel release security detainees from their community as part of a deal for Shalit.

"This is not an internal Israeli issue. These prisoners are in jail because of the occupation and because they are Palestinian. We are sons of one nation, whether they want this or not," said Mahmoud Kna'aneh, head of the Bnei Hakfar (Sons of the Village) Israeli Arab political movement.

The release of Israeli Arab security detainees is in fact one of the main sticking points in indirect talks between Hamas and Israel over Shalit. Hamas has included twenty such detainees on a list of Palestinians it wants Israel to free in return for the captured soldier.

These detainees were involved in attacks before the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

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