EXCLUSIVE: The release of a tape showing that captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit is alive is the first stage of a broader deal being negotiated with Israel on the release of 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, the senior Hamas leader in Gaza said Wednesday. Dr. Mahmoud Zahar also said that Hamas is close to reconciling its differences with the rival Fatah movement in the West Bank.
Zahar, a physician who is the de facto leader of the militant Islamic movement that rules Gaza, described the background of how the Shalit tape was negotiated and the broader progress on other fronts in an interview at his home in Gaza City.
He had just returned from informing the Red Cross that Hamas had provided a "proof of life" tape to an unnamed German negotiator through whom Hamas has been negotiating indirectly with Israel. He called the exchange, to take place Friday, of the one-minute-long videotape for the release of 20 Palestinian women from different political factions and parts of the Palestinian territories "a small symbolic deal" that proved that Shalit was alive.
A statement from the Israeli prime minister's office described the gesture as a "confidence-building measure."
"This is a message to Israel that we are negotiating over a live body, not a dead body," Zahar said.
The Israeli soldier, abducted in a cross-border raid, has been held by the Palestinians since June 2006.
Zahar credited former President Jimmy Carter with having played an important role in the release of the tape. He said Israel had asked Carter for a "sign of life" and that an unnamed German mediator, along with Egyptian officials, had followed up with more specific suggestions.
Regarding the Egyptian-led mediating aimed at ending the division between Hamas and Fatah, Zahar expressed optimism that a reconciliation deal would be signed on Oct. 20 in Cairo.
He said that the elements of a power-sharing arrangement between the warring Palestinian factions were now in place, and that one of four points of agreement provides for elections in the West Bank and Gaza. He said that his information was fresh, because he had just returned from the negotiations in Cairo on Monday.
Zahar seemed extremely confident and pleased with what he called the "progress" on the various negotiation fronts. But Israeli officials downplayed his optimistic predictions, saying that because Hamas was steadily losing ground in Gaza, it was eager to inflate the group's ability to deliver political and economic benefits to the Palestinians.
Regarding the fate of Shalit, Israeli officials declined comment on Zahar's assertion that Israel was ready to exchange 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for Shalit. They said Israel long ago concluded that efforts to secure the release of the Israeli soldier were best served by secrecy.
In the interview, Zahar made the following points:
-- He said that Hamas had concentrated on getting women released by Israel to demonstrate his movement's concern for women of all political factions and to prove Hamas' ability to deliver political benefits for all Palestinians. That step advances Hamas' desire to broaden its political base and win a Palestinian national election.
-- He expressed admiration for President Obama's "words in Cairo," which he said Hamas had followed closely, but that his organization had been "disappointed" by the lack of progress on "implementing those words." "The Cairo speech was very positive, and we're still waiting for the practical implementation of those words,'" he said.
-- He said the peace process meeting in New York among Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas produced virtually nothing and was "not encouraging." Western diplomats said Hamas had no interest in seeing the New York talks succeed and that the group was deeply chagrined by reports of Abbas' growing popularity in the West Bank and Gaza.
-- He said there was obvious "linkage" between "our case and the Iranian case," suggesting that an improvement in relations between Washington and Hamas might lead to a similar improvement with the Islamic Republic of Iran.