Hamas on Friday publicly acknowledged for the first time that it was holding four Israelis: two Israeli citizens who crossed into Gaza on their own accord and the bodies of two soldiers killed in 2014’s Gaza war.
The group published photos of the four: slain soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, 29-year-old Avraham Mengistu, and a Bedouin-Israeli citizen whose name has not been released for publication.
Hamas denied reports in recent days that Israel and Hamas may be nearing a prisoner swap for the four, with a spokesman for the group claimed the reports were misdirection by the Israeli government and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“Netanyahu is lying to his people” and “deceiving the families of the captive soldiers,” spokesman Abu Obeida said in a statement.
“There are no talks or negotiations relating to the prisoners. The enemy will not get information about the four without paying a clear price before and after the negotiations,” he added.
On Monday the London-based daily Asharq al-Awsat quoted a source in the Gaza-based Islamist group as saying that though there were currently no direct negotiations between Hamas and Israel, international mediators were trying to broker a prisoner swap.
Israel and Hamas do not officially maintain direct contacts, and any deal would have to be mediated by international parties. In 2011, kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was released in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian detainees, in a deal brokered with the help of a German diplomat.
Hamas has reportedly refused to even entertain the possibility of negotiating a swap until Israel releases all Palestinians rearrested after being freed in the 2011 deal for Shalit.
The Islamist group is also demanding the talks be held separately from all other issues, according to the report.
The captivity of the two citizens is viewed by Israel as a humanitarian issue unrelated to the negotiations over the bodies of the two deceased soldiers, an official told Walla news last July.
While a senior Palestinian official based in the Gaza Strip denied that the group was holding Mengistu, Hamas political leader Khaled Mashaal last year alluded to Mengistu and the second man when discussing Israelis held by his organization.
At a rally in Gaza last July, Hamas displayed a huge model fist holding a mock-up of Shaul’s ID card and two other IDF dog tags with question marks on them, implying that it holds two Israelis captive.
Mengistu, who suffered from unspecified mental issues, was rejected for IDF service.
Little is known of the whereabouts of Mengistu, who climbed over the Gaza security fence in September last year. Family members have described him as “unwell” and urged Hamas to consider his condition and return him to Israel immediately.
Mengistu’s brother, Gashao, traveled to Geneva in February to plead his family’s case before European officials.
“When Hamas is asking for humanitarian assistance, and contributions to the people in Gaza, then the international community should tell them: Don’t expect us to assist you when you are violating the same rights of the other side,” Gashao said.
The second hostage, an Israeli from the Bedouin village of Hura, reportedly entered Gaza via the Erez Crossing in April. According to an Israeli official, the man has mild psychological issues and has a history of entering Jordan, Egypt and Gaza.
Dov Lieber and agencies contributed to this report