After a nearly 10-month standoff in efforts to secure the release of an Israeli soldier captured by Palestinian militants, Israeli media reported yesterday that progress toward a deal had been made, with the soldier's captors handing over a list of prisoners they wanted freed.
The list includes up to 1,000 names, Israeli media reported. A Palestinian close to the negotiations was told that among those on the list is Marwan Barghouti, a leader of the Palestinian uprising, who was convicted for his role in shooting attacks that killed four Israelis and a Greek monk.
The release of Israeli Corporal Gilad Shalit, who was captured on June 25 by Hamas-linked militants, is seen as a precondition for any possible progress in peace efforts. A swap could also help the new Palestinian unity government, a coalition of the Islamic militant Hamas and the moderate Fatah movement, in its quest for international acceptance.
Shalit's captors, who snatched the soldier in a raid into Israel, initially demanded the release of 1,400 Palestinian prisoners, including women, minors and dozens of the longest-serving inmates. Israel balked at freeing those involved in attacks that wounded or killed Israelis.
In all, approximately 9,300 Palestinian security prisoners are being held by Israel, one of the highest totals in 40 years of Israeli military occupation.
On Saturday, Palestinian Information Minister Mustafa Barghouti announced that Shalit's captors presented the list of names they wanted freed and that it was handed to Israel by Egyptian mediators.
"If the Israeli government is serious, there is now a very good opportunity to end this chapter," said Barghouti, a distant relative of Marwan Barghouti, the uprising leader.
Ghazi Hamad, a Hamas spokesman, also said progress has been made.
Israeli Cabinet Minister Yitzhak Herzog told Israel Army Radio he was not involved in the negotiations, but: "I imagine that there is a certain progress, compared to what there has been until now."
"On the other hand I would be very wary ... because there is still a long way to go," he said.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said he is willing to release prisoners. However, the swap has been held up by disagreement over who should be freed.
Also on Saturday, an Israeli airstrike in Gaza killed a Palestinian militant and wounded two. The Israeli military said it launched the strike after spotting the militants trying to plant a bomb. It said militants had planted explosives in the same area two days earlier.
The army said militants have planted more than 40 bombs along the border since Palestinian militants in Gaza and Israel agreed on a ceasefire in November.
The Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a small militant group, said the militants were "on a holy mission" when they were hit by the Israeli force.
Israel says militants have been exploiting the lull to smuggle explosives, missiles and other weapons into Gaza through tunnels from neighboring Egypt.
During the truce, Palestinian militants have fired some 200 rockets into Israel, the army said, including two on Saturday. One of the rockets caused light damage to a building in the border town of Sderot. The army said there were no injuries.
The Palestinian news agency WAFA quoted Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as telling newly graduating members of his presidential guard on Saturday that they and members of other Palestinian security forces must work together to put a halt to the rocket fire.