Hamas says truce with Israel is near

Officials of the Palestinian group also indicate a prisoner swap, including Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, is in the works.

Bassem Tellawi/AP
Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar, left, met with Syrian vice president Farouk Al Sharaa in Damascus Wednesday. Hamas leaders said Thursday that the group has agreed to a truce with Israel and the deal could be announced in the next few days.

New reports out of the Middle East indicate that Hamas and Israel are nearing agreements on both a new truce between the two and a prisoner swap that would free Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was seized by Hamas in 2006.

Agence France-Presse (AFP) writes that, according to a report from Egypt's Middle East News Agency, Hamas has accepted a truce between the Gaza-based Islamist group and Israel. Egypt, which brokered the deal, will announce the agreement after contacting Israel and the two Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah.

"We have agreed to the truce with the Israeli side for a year and a half (in return) for the opening of all six passages between the Gaza Strip and Israel," Hamas's deputy leader Mussa Abu Marzuk said late Thursday....
Israel has yet to comment. Israel imposed a crippling blockade of Gaza after Hamas seized control of the territory in a week of vicious street battles in June 2007, ousting Fatah loyalists of Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.
Ending the blockade has been a key Hamas demand and the reason it says it launched rockets and mortar rounds into Israel after another Egyptian brokered six-month truce that expired in December.

AFP adds that a pair of short-range rockets were launched from Gaza into Israel soon after the report was made, though the Israeli army reports no one was hurt.

Reuters reports that the truce would involve opening the border between Egypt and Gaza as well. The crossing would be overseen by international monitors and border security which would report to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, leader of Fatah, which controls the West Bank. Reuters also writes that Amos Gilad, Israel's representative in the talks, may return to Egypt as soon as Saturday for further discussion, and the truce could be finalized as soon as Sunday.

In a video report, Al Jazeera English says that the truce likely requires significant concessions from both Hamas and Israel. The Qatar-based news agency cites Middle East consultant Khalil Jahshan, who said that the extent of the concessions will likely remain hidden for political reasons.

"Neither [Israel nor Hamas], I guarantee you, would be interested in revealing neither the sequence nor the substance of these steps, because they... have agreed to things that would be very embarrassing to their constituents, number one. Number two, it would defy basically the logic of the fighting of the past couple of months. This type of agreement could have been reached without the killing and the savagery that we have witnessed during the Gaza war."

The Ma'an News Agency, an independent Palestinian media outlet, adds that Mr. Marzuk indicated a prisoner swap involving Corporal Shalit is in the works as well, though it is being conducted separately from the truce negotiations. Shalit was seized by Hamas in June 2006, and his release has been the subject of ongoing talks between Hamas and Israel since.

"We want the release of our detainees in exchange for Shalit," Abu Marzouk noted, saying Hamas has already submitted a list of names of Palestinian prisoners.
"If Israel agrees on our list, we will make the deal," Abu Marzouk explained.

The Jerusalem Post writes that "in a rare interview," Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman confirmed that a prisoner swap was under discussion.

Suleiman was quoted by Al-Ahram on Friday as saying that Egypt had rejected an Israeli request to banish several of the prisoners from the West Bank, with Cairo insisting that they return to their homes in the territory.
The intelligence head went on to tell the Egyptian newspaper that Israel was refusing to deliver cement, aluminum and iron to Gaza, all of which could be used for weapons manufacture, until a deal is sealed for Schalit's release.

The Post adds that Mr. Suleiman also confirmed the negotiations towards reaching a truce, saying that four issues still needed to be finalized: "rocket-fire from Gaza, the establishment of a buffer zone between Israel and the Strip, Hamas's commitment to honor the truce and a halt to arms smuggling to Gaza."

Agence France-Presse also reports that Hamas and Fatah met Thursday to discuss forming a unity government over the Palestinian territories. AFP noted that it was the highest-level meeting between the two factions since Hamas overthrew Fatah in Gaza in 2007.

Thursday's meeting was attended by a Fatah delegation headed by former Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Qorei and a team headed [by] the number two in the Hamas politburo Musa Abu Marzuk.
Fatah and Hamas agreed to "put an end to mutual attacks in the media," to halt arrests of members of the rival faction, and to pursue meetings aimed at preparing the reconciliation dialogue, the statement said.

AFP adds that reconciliation talks are scheduled to continue on February 22.

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