A LIST of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners wanted in exchange for long-term hostage Corporal Gilad Shalit has been presented to the Israeli government in the biggest sign of progress towards securing his release for nearly a year.
The continued captivity of Cpl Shalit, who was seized in a cross-border raid from Gaza in June last year by militants allied to the Hamas faction, has added further acrimony to the poisoned Israeli-Palestinian relationship.
Ehud Olmert, Israel's prime minister, has accused the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, of failing to deliver on a pledge to secure the soldier's release before last month's formation of the new Palestinian national unity government of both the Fatah and Hamas factions.
Freeing Cpl Shalit has also been cited by some European countries as one of the steps the coalition cabinet must take if it wants the crippling sanctions imposed after Hamas took office last year, to be eased.
Isaac Herzog, an Israeli cabinet minister, said yesterday that "certain progress has been made compared with how things were until now".
But he added: "There is still a long way to go. We are apparently approaching the truly difficult stage of the negotiations."
Egyptian officials mediating with Hamas handed over the list to Israeli officials yesterday, which reportedly includes anything from 350 to 1,000 names,
However, Cpl Shalit's release is not seen as imminent as Israel is expected to reject some of the names on the list.
One Israeli official described some of the named Palestinians as "murderers" who will not be set free.
Media reports said the list included Palestinian uprising leader Marwan Barghouthi, who is serving five consecutive life terms after being convicted of shooting attacks that killed four Israelis and a Greek monk.
Mr Barghouthi, who once enjoyed good relations with Israeli officials, is seen as a possible successor to Mr Abbas as head of the Fatah movement founded by Yasser Arafat.
There have been calls in Israel for him to be released to provide a counterweight to Hamas. Traditionally, Israel has ruled out freeing prisoners with "blood on their hands" a designation it has defined broadly to include not only those who killed Israelis but also people who transported militants to attack sites, militants whose attempted attacks failed and others who helped an attack.
If it wants to reach a deal over Cpl Shalit, the Israeli government would have to re-evaluate the definitions.
Nonetheless, Israel has a long history of lop-sided prisoner exchanges with Arab parties.
In 1985, it set free 1,150 Arab prisoners for three Israelis held by a Palestinian group in Lebanon.
In January, 2004, it released 400 Palestinians, 21 Lebanese and 59 Lebanese corpses in exchange for three corpses of soldiers held by Hezbollah and a kidnapped businessman and senior reserve officer, Elhanan Tannenbaum.
However, the Israeli government is wary of being criticised for caving in or rewarding Hamas.
And the prisoner issue is especially sensitive in Palestinian public opinion, with Palestinians unwilling to accept Cpl Shalit being freed without a significant release from among their approximately 9,000 prisoners in Israeli jails.
But Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said: "There is a clear progress in the fact a list of names has been presented."