GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – The leader of Hamas headed to Egypt for a rare visit Saturday, fueling some speculation of possible progress in protracted negotiations between the Islamic militant group and Israel on a prisoner swap.
Egypt has served as mediator since Hamas militants captured an Israeli soldier, Gilad Schalit, near Gaza in June 2006. Hamas demands the release of hundreds of Palestinians by Israel, in exchange for Schalit.
German diplomats have become involved in the negotiations in recent weeks, making 11 trips to Hamas-ruled Gaza in the past month, said Ayman Taha, a Hamas spokesman. German mediators have helped arrange swaps involving Israeli captives in the past, and Taha described the German effort as "serious."
However, there have been many false alarms about an imminent swap, and there were no concrete signs of progress Saturday.
Mashaal, the top Hamas leader based in Damascus, was to arrive in Cairo later Saturday, Taha said.
Hamas officials gave conflicting reports on Mashaal's mission. Some said he was only to discuss the internal Palestinian conflict with Egyptian counterparts, while others said the prisoner swap is also on the agenda.
Hamas seized Gaza by force in June 2007, ousting forces loyal to pragmatic Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and leaving him only in control of the West Bank. A Palestinian unity deal is seen as a prerequisite for an eventual Mideast peace agreement, but months of reconciliation talks have yielded little progress.
Abbas was in Cairo on Saturday for talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, but left before his rival arrived.
Abbas said the topic of reconciliation talks did come up during his discussions with Mubarak. He also reiterated his stance that a total settlement freeze was a necessary condition for restarting talks with the Israelis.
In other developments, a 15-year-old Palestinian who was seriously wounded by Israeli army fire died of his wounds Saturday, a Gaza doctor said. The teen, Ghazi Zaneen, was near Gaza's border with Israel when he was fired on Friday, said Dr. Jadallah Shafi, a doctor at the Beit Hanoun hospital in northern Gaza.
The Israeli army considers the area near Gaza's border fence a no-go zone because Palestinian militants often fire rockets from there at Israeli border towns. However, farmers also try reach their fields near the border, and have come under fire.
Zaneen's father, Maher, said he was tending his land close to the border with his children, including Ghazi, when a soldier in an Israeli jeep began firing shots at them. Zaneen said he found Ghazi lying on the ground with a shot to the head.
The family is loyal to the militant group Islamic Jihad, but Zaneen said they were unarmed.
A military official speaking on the condition of anonymity said soldiers firing warning shots in the air on Friday afternoon as Palestinians approached the border but did not report hitting anyone.