A Hamas official who asked not to be quoted told the Monitor on Monday that Israel and Hamas would probably reach a deal by week's end. One of the Gaza newspapers closest to Hamas, al-Risala, reported that the swap was being delayed by disagreement over just one prisoner. Later in the day the family of Marwan Barghouti – a popular West Bank Fatah leader held by Israel since 2002 – claimed he would be released as part of the deal.
An prisoner exchange could provide a major boost to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been pressed by US officials and other international mediators to show he's working in earnest to reverse a near breakdown in Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts. Similarly, the deal would bolster Hamas – and in Mr. Barghouti could provide a charismatic leader to succeed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who has said he will not seek reelection, and possibly bridge the Fatah-Hamas divide.
Palestinian political scientist Bassem Zubeidi says Hamas is insisting that Barghouti be included in the prisoner swap. If Hamas succeeds, he says, it would boost the credibility of the Islamist organization, which has been largely relegated to the tiny Gaza Strip since a violent falling out with Mr. Abbas's Fatah party in 2007.
"If that happens, it will be perceived as a good achievement on the part of Hamas, and it will show that Hamas is delivering and capable of doing things, while Abbas is a complete mess," says Dr. Zubeidi, a professor at Birzeit University in the West Bank. "He has done nothing in his years of talking to the Israelis, Hamas will claim, while there will be a chance for Hamas to appear jubilant and successful."
Barghouti convicted of murder
Mr. Barghouti is often chosen in polls as the most favored man to lead Palestinians in the future. A leader of the Tanzim, a militant organization that recruited suicide bombers during the second intifada, he was convicted by Israel in 2004 on five counts of murder.
In the past, relatives of Israelis killed by Palestinian militants have asked that Israel not release Palestinians with "blood on their hands." But Israel has overridden that guideline before, releasing prisoners convicted of murder to gain the remains of soldiers for proper burial. Some Israelis argue that the rumored Shalit trade will provide incentive for future kidnappings.
At the same time, Israelis regularly rally for the return of Shalit, who was 19 when he was kidnapped in a Palestinian cross-border raid in June 2006. Last month, Israel released 20 female Palestinian prisoners in exchange for a Hamas videotape that showed Shalit to be in good physical health.
Local news stations reported that several senior Hamas officials left Gaza on Monday for negotiations in Egypt; many speculated that Sgt. Shalit could be with them for a "hand-over" via officials in Cairo. But as expectation build officials on both sides have grown tight-lipped about the matter – prisoner exchanges are highly emotional matters on both sides of the divide. What seemed more in question Monday was not whether there would be an exchange but whom it would include.
Hamas representative Osama Hamdan denied in an official statement released Sunday that the deal was near completion, according to Palestinian press reports in Gaza.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office referred reporters to a statement light on detail.
"Many details coming from abroad and in foreign media are being published lately, but they are not credible and some of them are even intentionally distorted," the statement read. "Efforts to secure Gilad Shalit's release are continuously under way, out of the media's view, and we have no intentions of commenting beyond that."
Netanyahu told his right-wing faction on Monday that there was "no deal yet," according to officials present at the meeting, and said that the issue would be decided by his cabinet and debated in the Knesset, Israel's parliament.