Damascus, Asharq Al-Awsat- Palestinian sources in Damascus revealed that the Israeli – Hamas prisoner exchange which is being negotiated with the aid of a German mediator will likely be concluded by next week. Palestinian sources close to the Hamas movement informed Asharq Al-Awsat that a Hamas delegation from the Gaza Strip led by Mahmoud al-Zahar, and also including Khalil al-Hayya and Nizar Awdallah met with the German mediator in Cairo. The source also said that the Gazan delegation also held a number of meetings over two days with the Damascus based [Hamas] political leadership during which they discussed the results of the Cairo meeting and the possibility of reaching a decision on the prisoner exchange deal.
The Hamas leaders concluded their meetings on Tuesday night in an atmosphere of heavy secrecy however Palestinian sources predict that the prisoner exchange deal will include the release of Fatah Central Committee member Marwan Barghouti, Secretary-General of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine [PFLP] Ahmad Sa’adat, along with the leader of the West Bank Al Qassam Brigade faction Ibrahim Hamed, on the condition that he is deported to Syria.
The source said that it is likely that this deal will be concluded next week, after the deal is ratified during the regular cabinet meeting of the Israeli government which is scheduled to be held on Sunday. The Palestinian source also informed Asharq Al-Awsat that “the German mediator has exerted great effort to achieve the deal and achieved significant progress during the previous month.”
As for the details of the prisoner exchange deal, the Palestinian source told Asharq Al-Awsat that if the current details being discussed are agreed then “this will include the release of 1,150 Palestinian prisoners in three stages. The first stage is the release of 450 prisoners the majority of whom are serving long sentences, and this will take place after the Israeli prisoner Gilad Shalit is handed over to the Egyptians. The rest of the prisoners will be released in two phases; the second phase after Gilad Shalit is handed over to Israel.”
Asharq Al-Awsat also learnt that the Egyptians want the prisoner exchange deal between Hamas and Israel to be concluded as part of a broader comprehensive agreement that includes Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. According to Palestinian sources, the Egyptian side is researching the possibility of concluding a comprehensive deal with Israel, Hamas, and the Palestinian Authority; this deal would include a truce between Israel and the resistance movements in the West Bank, and the reopening of all of the Gaza Strips border crossings with Egypt and Israel.
According to sources, Mahmoud Abbas will need to play an essential role in the agreement on the re-opening of the border crossings [in the Gaza Strips] on the grounds that any such deal will be based upon the 2005 deal on the Rafah Border Crossing concluded between Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and the European Union. Hamas was not involved in this deal that led to the Rafah Border Crossing falling under the provision of the European Union Border Assistance Mission Rafah. The source said that if any such deal is agreed, it will be duty of the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to sign it.
The source clarified that this deal is separate from the current controversy surrounding the Egyptian-sponsored Palestinian reconciliation, and there is hope that it will help the reconciliation process and achieve a national agreement for dialogue [between Hamas and Fatah]. Sources also revealed that Egypt wants the prisoner exchange deal to come as part of a broader comprehensive agreement that will include Mahmoud Abbas, as this would strengthen his position, which Egypt fears will be further weakened should the Israeli – Hamas deal go ahead without his involvement.
Sources also told Asharq Al-Awsat that Director of Policy and Political-Military Affairs at the Israeli Defense Ministry, Amos Gilad, is set to head to Egypt soon to discuss the deal proposed by Egypt. Israeli radio said that Israel is interested in reaching a ceasefire with Hamas that would allow the reopening of the Gaza Strip border crossings, as this would reduce the pressure on Israel to lift its blockade on the Gaza Strip in the wake of Gilad Shalit’s release.
Despite this information, the prisoner exchange deal remains shrouded in mystery in light of the conflicting information leaked to the media on the outcome of the negotiations that have taken place so far. Some leaks claim that Israel has refused to release the Al-Qassem Brigade leader Ibrahim Hamed, while others report that Israel has agreed on his release on the condition that he is deported to Syria.
The Israeli cabinet held a national security meeting on Wednesday to discuss the prisoner exchange deal. The Israeli media revealed that 80 percent of Israeli Ministers are in favor of the deal. While Israel’s Channel 2 reported on Tuesday that there is currently a dispute between the Gazan Hamas leadership and the Damascus-based Hamas leaders on the Israeli offer which they were informed of via the German mediator.
According to the Israel Army Radio, the US administration has expressed its opposition to the prisoner exchange deal on the grounds that this could weaken the position of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The radio station quoted a US diplomatic source as saying that this deal would strengthen Hamas’s position, while weakening the position of Mahmoud Abbas, particularly in light of Israel’s continued settlement building in the West Bank, and its refusal to release Palestinian prisoners as a gesture of goodwill to Abbas.