The deal for the release of kidnapped Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit is ready and waiting for the approval of Hamas' politburo chief Khaled Mashaal, sources involved in the negotiations told Ynet on Thursday.
However, it seems that Mashaal is in no rush. In an interview with the Lebanese newspaper al-Akhbar, the Hamas leader said that there were no serious talks for Shalit's release.
According to the sources, Mashaal is facing pressures from Syria and Iran to continue to toughen his stance over the issue. It appears that from the Iranians' point of view, Shalit has become a "bargaining chip" in terms of the nuclear issue, and therefore it is still unclear when the deal will be implemented.
"There is no other way except negotiations, which have not started yet because Israel refuses to admit that its attempts to free the soldier without a price have failed," Mashaal said in the interview. "We receive many international delegations that come to discuss the issue but none of them has a full and serious mandate."
According to the sources, Shalit would be freed and transferred to Israel through Egypt or directly by the Palestinians in exchange for the release of Palestinian prisoners in two or three stages.
"Everything has already been finalized and we waiting for Mashaal's approval," a source said.
The sources added that following talks held by the different mediators – particularly the Egyptians – they were under the impression that Mashaal, as well as the entire Hamas leadership in the territories and abroad, was interested in finalizing the deal as soon as possible. However, his political and financial commitments to the Iranians force him to consider Iran's stance.
Being cautiously optimistic, the sources said that the Iranians may delay the release because Shalit has become a bargaining chip also in relation to the nuclear issue in light of the increasing pressures on the part of the international community.
All the members of the political bureau, including those known for their radical stance, have agreed to the deal. Mashaal himself has said that he would like to reach a deal as soon as possible.
The sources involved in the negotiations strongly denied the reports that Shalit was transferred to Egypt. They estimated that at the current stage of the political situation in the Middle East, with the war in Lebanon still not far behind, Egypt would not be enthused to accept an Israeli soldier on its territory and expose itself to condemnations on the part of the Egyptian opposition and the local public opinion.
"In the good scenario, Shalit would be handed over to the Egyptian security delegation, but it is very possible that already in the first stage Shalit would be transferred to Israel by the Egyptian security delegation in the Strip or by the Palestinians themselves," a source involved in the negotiations told Ynet.
The sources said that there was an agreement in principle on the number of prisoners who will be released and on the stages in which they will be freed. It is already clear that hundreds of prisoners will be released, but the exact number is still unknown.
These are the three stages of the deal:
- A first group of prisoners will be released immediately or shortly after Shalit's release.
- A second group will be released as a gesture on the part of Israel to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas ahead of a possible meeting between the president and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert after Shalit's release.
- A third group will be released at a later stage. Prisoners defined as having "blood on their hands" will not be released at any of the stages, including senior prisoners such as Marwan Barghouti.
It is still unclear whether the Hamas leaders and ministers will be released immediately as part of the deal or at a later stage, but their release is part of the negotiations, which also include a mutual truce agreement between the sides.
The Palestinians will commit to guarantee that the firing of rockets at Israel will be halted in exchange for a halt of the IDF's raid in the Gaza Strip.
"The problem here is that due to the large number of groups operating in the field there is nothing that can guarantee that the truce agreement would be accepted by each of the dozens of active groups and organizations," a source said.
The same sources estimated that "most of the factions can commit and stop the firing of rockets, but a group of two or three people can fire a rocket once in a while, and then there will be those who will claim that there is no truce."
"At the first stage, the efforts are focusing on completing the deal in terms of releasing prisoners in exchange for Shalit, and in general terms – an understanding on a mutual truce with Abu Mazen (Abbas) and the Palestinian government exerting efforts to enforce this understanding on all the organizations," a source explained.
The sources concluded that the deal could be implemented within hours or days, but it may encounter difficulties due to the main obstacle which continues to be Mashaal, who has so far failed to approve the deal. Without such an approval, there is no chance that Shalit will be released.
A Palestinian source involved in the negotiations said that both the Egyptians and Abbas' associates have made it clear to Hamas in recent days that "as time passes, Israel's ring of information around the abductor's hideout is naturally beginning to close. Hamas may then lose, because Israel might attempt to enter an adventure, which will prevent a prisoner swap deal, whether Shalit is released or hurt."
"The release of hundreds of prisoners is at stake in light of the stubbornness of the Hamas leader, who is doing this because of foreign interests which have nothing to do with the Palestinian issue," the source added.