Hamas leaders raced to Egypt on Monday amid signs of progress on a deal to swap hundreds of Palestinian prisoners for a captive Israeli soldier held by the Islamic militant group for more than three years.
The exchange could boost Hamas at the expense of its key rival, Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, in part because one of the prisoners to be freed is Marwan Barghouti, his main challenger.
Officials on both sides cautioned against exaggerated optimism that a deal is about to be concluded. Even so, conditions for a deal appear to be ripening on both sides.
Israel and Hamas have been locked in on-again, off-again talks since Gaza militants tunneled into Israel and captured Sgt. Gilad Schalit in a 2006 raid that killed two other soldiers. Until recently, the Egyptian-mediated talks had made little progress.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is eager for a breakthrough. Bringing Schalit home would give him a huge domestic boost and provide an important diplomatic victory at a time when much of the international community is criticizing him for not doing enough to promote peace.
Israel's ceremonial president, Shimon Peres, confirmed progress in the talks after meeting with Egypt's president Sunday in Cairo.
Hamas, the Iranian-backed militant group that controls Gaza, is also hungry for progress. Exchanging Schalit for hundreds of prisoners would provide a swift popularity boost for the militant group among Palestinians, who see the imprisonment of thousands of their countrymen in Israeli jails as one of their main grievances against Israel.
It could also help ease the group's deep international isolation and lead to a lifting of a bruising Israeli economic blockade. The embargo, imposed after Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007, has prevented repairs of heavy damage inflicted by an Israeli military offensive nearly a year ago.
The recent involvement of German mediators, who enjoy the trust of both sides, also has improved the climate.
While previous attempts to reach a deal have repeatedly broken down, both sides have signaled they are serious.
Though no official statements have been made, it appears that Netanyahu is prepared to release more hard-core Palestinian militants than his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, fulfilling a key Hamas demand. He also is believed to have agreed to include some Israeli-Arab prisoners in the deal.
Hamas has shown flexibility on some important issues, particularly Israel's insistence that some 150 prisoners are expected to be deported to countries elsewhere in the Middle East or Europe _ although still to be worked out is whether these would eventually be allowed to return to the Palestinian territories. Hamas also released a video of Schalit last month, the most solid confirmation he is alive.
In a sign of its seriousness, Hamas said over the weekend that all of Gaza's militant groups had agreed to suspend rocket attacks on Israel. However, the Israeli military said Palestinians fired a rocket at Israel after nightfall Monday. Israel has vowed to retaliate for every rocket attack, and such an exchange could unravel the prisoner swap.
A senior Hamas delegation led by strongman Mahmoud Zahar and two top members of the group's armed wing, which is holding Schalit, crossed into Egypt from Gaza. Witnesses said Israeli military helicopters hovered overhead as the delegation headed to the border, though the Israeli military said it had no aircraft in the area at the time.
A member of Hamas' Syrian-based leadership, Moussa Abu Marzouk, said "there is progress" in the talks but gave no details on the timing of a possible deal.
Late Monday, the Hamas leadership in Damascus, Syria, issued a statement charging that Israel was trying to create pressure through leaks to the media. The statement said it was "too early to speak about certain results or a close agreement on the deal."
Speaking to members of his Likud Party, Netanyahu cautioned it could be some time before an agreement is completed. He told lawmakers he would hold a parliamentary debate on any deal and bring it to his Cabinet for approval.
Netanyahu could face some opposition in his hard-line coalition, but would likely be able to pass the swap in his Cabinet. The deal would also be subject to a 48-hour period for opponents to file legal challenges.
A Palestinian familiar with the talks said Israel was preparing to release some 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in the swap. The Palestinian, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the prisoners would be released in two stages.
The initial batch of 450 people is expected to include many serving lengthy sentences for deadly attacks on Israelis. Among them would be Barghouti, a popular leader of Hamas rival Fatah, who is serving five consecutive life terms for his role in shooting attacks that killed four Israelis and a Greek monk.
Several Palestinian officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation, said the sides had agreed on the names and numbers of prisoners to be freed, and that only smaller details, such as logistics and timing, needed to be ironed out. The Palestinian close to the talks said there were hopes that details could be resolved by the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha this weekend.
He said the first batch of prisoners would be released as Schalit is handed over to the Egyptians, and then returned to Israel. The remaining prisoners would be released, weeks or even months later.
A mass release would boost Hamas in its rivalry with Abbas. The sides have been in a bitter power struggle since Hamas ousted Abbas' forces and took control of Gaza in 2007. Abbas, who favors a negotiated peace deal with Israel, governs only in the West Bank.
With peace efforts at a standstill for nearly a year, Abbas already is deeply unpopular with the Palestinian public. The prisoner release is likely to reinforce the notion that Hamas' violent struggle against Israel is far more effective than Abbas' pursuit of a peaceful settlement.
The release of Barghouti, a member of Abbas' Fatah party, could also complicate things for the president. The charismatic Barghouti is widely popular with the Palestinian public and is seen as a strong contender for president.
Abbas has said he will not run for re-election, but aides say he has not ruled out the idea altogether. Barghouti's emergence on the political scene could force the 74-year-old Abbas aside.
Barghouti favors a peace agreement with Israel. But in contrast to Abbas, he does not rule out the use of violent "resistance" as a tactic.
Some say, however, that Barghouti could emerge as an important unifying figure among the Palestinians. He has good relations with Hamas and may be the only figure capable of ending the divisions between the two Palestinian governments.
The release of Schalit would give Netanyahu a major domestic political victory.
Schalit's plight has transfixed the nation for three years. A protest tent by Schalit supporters stands outside the prime minister's official residence, bumper stickers with the soldier's image are everywhere, and the soldier's father, Noam Schalit, is a ubiquitous presence on Israeli TV as he campaigns for his son's freedom.
Netanyahu's hostage negotiator briefed the father on the progress Monday.
"We hope to see Gilad home after so many years," Noam Schalit said later Monday. "Unfortunately I cannot say anything. Now is not the time for chatter, but for deeds."
Hadid reported from Gaza City.