GAZA CITY (AFP) â€” Efforts to free an Israeli soldier captured by fighters in the Gaza Strip appeared to gain speed Sunday with reports that Israel might release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the man.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of the ruling Islamist Hamas movement confirmed press reports that Egypt was mediating talks on a prisoner swap between Israel and armed groups in Gaza who seized the soldier.
“The Egyptians are making a lot of efforts. There are certain things going on to solve this question but there is nothing specific,” Haniyeh a said during a visit to a school in Gaza.
“We hope the Egyptian efforts succeed,” he added.
Hamas’ armed wing was one of the three groups in Gaza to have claimed responsibility for the June 25 cross-border raid in which two soldiers were killed and a third, Corporal Gilad Shalit, captured.
On Sunday, Israel’s mass-selling Yediot Aharonot daily said that under secret talks brokered by Egypt, Israel could release up to 800 Palestinian prisoners in return for Shalit, who turned 20 last Monday while still in captivity.
Quoting unnamed security officials, the paper said Israel would free the prisoners in three stages but that the talks were being held up by questions related to the timetable.
Israel has refused, however, to release Marwan Barghouthi, a leader of the Palestinian uprising and a senior figure in President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fateh faction, Yediot said.
Top-level Israeli envoy Ofer Dekel was recently dispatched to Cairo by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to discuss Shalit’s release, Israeli public radio said Sunday.
Olmert’s spokeswoman Miri Eisen refused to confirm or deny the report, repeating only Israel’s official position that it “does not negotiate with terrorists”.
In Ramallah, the acting Palestinian finance minister confirmed that Egypt was brokering talks.
“Egypt is conducting negotiations with Palestinian factions and with Israel and us in the government,” Samir Abu Eisheh told AFP.
“Our position is to support these Egyptian efforts to solve the issue of the Israeli soldier and Palestinian prisoners,” he said.
“We heard that a resolution was near but we do not have any details as we are not party to these negotiations.” Shalit’s father, Noam, also told AFP that talks over his son’s release were underway.
“There are indirect contacts by Egyptian intermediaries. For the moment there is no progress, but I hope there will be some soon.
That would be normal, after 70 days” that Shalit has been missing, he said.
“I have periodic contacts with the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, but for the moment I haven’t any and I think Hamas’ political arm in Damascus holds the key to the situation.” Hamas’ political supremo, Khaled Mishaal, has lived in Syria since 1999 when he was expelled from Jordan.
Israel has demanded Shalit’s unconditional release, while local media report that talks have been under way for some time.
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said last month the country would negotiate for the release of two soldiers whose capture by Hizbollah fighters on July 12 sparked the Israeli offensive in Lebanon.
That announcement marked the first time an Israeli official publicly said the Jewish state would negotiate for the pair’s release.
On Saturday, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak told the state-owned daily Al-Ahram that talks were under way to release Shalit in exchange for Palestinian women and children in Israeli jails.
The Palestinian minister of communications and technology, Jamal Khodari, resigned from the Hamas-led government on Sunday, government spokesman Ghazi Hamad told AFP.
“Khodari has tendered his resignation, but he has not done so in writing,” Hamad said, adding that he did not know why Khodari quit.
On Saturday, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said a national unity government will be announced within 10 days after weeks of wrangling between his Fateh Party and the ruling Hamas movement.
“Meetings between… Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, including some which took place today (Saturday), have been productive and positive,” Nabil Abu Rudeina said.
“We expect to announce a national unity government in the coming 10 days.” Hamas heads the current Cabinet since its landslide election win in January, but it has seen crippling aid cuts to the already cash-strapped Palestinian Authority over its refusal to recognise Israel.