Page last updated at 09:32 GMT, Monday, 23 November 2009

Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit's release 'moves closer'

Demonstrators calling for Sgt Shalit's release at Israeli prime minister's residence
There has recently been speculation about a prisoner swap

Israeli President Shimon Peres has said that progress has been made in attempting to secure the release of the captured Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit.

Mr Peres was speaking after meeting his Egyptian counterpart, Hosni Mubarak.

Sgt Shalit was seized just across the border from Gaza during a raid by Palestinian militants in June 2006.

Correspondents say that since then, negotiations on a prisoner exchange deal have failed to come to fruition, but there are now signs of movement.

"There is no doubt that real progress has been made on the issue of Gilad Shalit, but the details must be kept behind the scenes," Mr Peres told reporters in the Egyptian capital, Cairo, on Sunday.

This came shortly after the al-Arabiya news channel quoted senior Hamas sources as saying a deal could be sealed within days, possibly in time for the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha.

The Islamist group's leaders in Syria would soon discuss a new list of prisoners that Israel recently presented to Egypt, they added.

German mediators

The BBC's Tim Franks in Jerusalem says the significance of Mr Peres's brief statement lies not just in its content, but the fact that it was made at all.

A Palestinian woman in Gaza holds a picture of a relative held in an Israeli prison (16 November 2009)
Israel holds about 10,000 Palestinian prisoners in jail on security grounds

Senior Israeli figures have long refused to comment on how negotiations might be going, and the military authorities have censored reports, saying leaks "have already caused damage".

Now, our correspondent says, there is an intense thrum of speculation, from both the Israeli and the Palestinian side, about a possible prisoner swap.

According to a recent Fox News report, Israel has offered to release 1,000 prisoners - including 450 requested by Hamas and several who have been convicted of murder - in return for Sgt Shalit.

Israel had earlier rejected 70 names submitted by Hamas, it said.

However, Fox also quoted a source in the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office as saying "the deal has not been completed yet". Some Hamas officials downplayed the reports as well.

Our correspondent says there have been intense cycles of rumour before, but what has changed recently has been the involvement, since earlier this year, of a German mediator.

And in October, for the first time, Hamas produced a video of their captive, in return for Israel releasing 20 female Palestinian prisoners.


Sgt Shalit appeared in a video for the first time in October

In the video dated 14 September, Sgt Shalit, now aged 23, said he was "physically well", and added that his captors, whom he described as the al-Qassam Mujahideen Brigades, were "treating me fine".

He also suggested that the decision to release the video opened up a chance to strike an agreement to free him.

"I hope this government, headed by Mr Netanyahu, does not waste this opportunity to reach a deal," he said.

Israel holds about 10,000 Palestinian prisoners in jail on security grounds - a major bone of contention with the Palestinians.

Earlier this month, several Hamas MPs were freed without charge after the 40-month period of their administrative detention expired. Fifteen Hamas MPs and two from Fatah remain in detention.

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