A senior Hamas official has denied a report that the terror group is demanding the release of thousands of prisoners held by Israel as a prerequisite for talks on a wider swap that would secure the return of three Israeli civilians and the remains of two IDF soldiers believed held in the Gaza Strip.
On Sunday Channel 2 news cited Israeli security sources saying that Hamas had raised new demands in the indirect talks, including that Israel release thousands of Palestinians who were arrested in the lead-up to the summer 2014 war in the Strip.
Speaking to The Times of Israel on Monday, a day after Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman vowed that Jerusalem would not release any Palestinian prisoners in a deal with Hamas, the Hamas official blamed Israel for a lack of progress in reaching talks.
The Hamas official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the report, and others like it, were an attempt by the Israeli government to pin blame on Hamas.
Hamas has been holding the bodies of IDF soldiers Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul since the two were killed in the Gaza Strip during the 2014 war. The terror group is also believed to be holding three Israeli civilians — Avraham Abera Mengistu, Hisham al-Sayed and Juma Ibrahim Abu Ghanima — who were all said to have entered the Gaza Strip of their own accord.
Israeli officials confirmed to The Times of Israel that Hamas’s position remained unchanged, as described by the Hamas source — in contrast to the Channel 2 report.
According to the Hamas source, the group’s position remains the same as it has been since the end of the war: Before beginning any negotiations, Israel must release the prisoners who were rearrested in the weeks before the 2014 conflict after being set free in the swap for IDF soldier Gilad Shalit deal. The official said that there were only 58 such Hamas prisoners being held in Israel.
“Israel put them back into prison and some of them were even returned to their life sentences. We are demanding that [Israel] honor the Shalit agreement of 2011 that was signed in Cairo,” he said, referring to the deal that saw more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners released in exchange for Shalit, who was kidnapped by Hamas from Israeli territory and held hostage in Gaza for five years.
According to the Channel 2 report that was denied by the official, Hamas is demanding that Israel release not only the prisoners released under the Shalit deal and rearrested in the weeks before the war, but rather all of the thousands of Palestinians scooped up at the time. They were apprehended during the search for three Israeli teenagers kidnapped in the West Bank — before it emerged that the three had been killed by their attackers almost immediately after their abduction.
The source acknowledged that Israel has agreed to release the 58 rearrested prisoners, but only as part of a larger agreement, while Hamas is demanding their release as a condition to start talks.
“Only after their release will we enter into real negotiations,” the Hamas official declared. “There were all sorts of proposals that were passed to us through various entities, but they are not acceptable without the early release of those prisoners from the Shalit deal.”
On Monday, Liberman said that the options available at the moment to Israel to liberate its three citizens in Gaza and recover the remains of the two soldiers are “to conquer Gaza or capitulate” to Hamas’s demands. A day earlier Liberman caused a media storm by declaring that Israel must not repeat the “mistake” of releasing Palestinian prisoners in exchange for captives held by Hamas.
The families of Goldin and Shaul, the two soldiers, while critical of the government’s failure to secure the return of the soldiers’ remains, aren’t demanding the release of prisoners or compromises to Hamas but rather a firmer hand in dealing with Hamas prisoners and the Gaza Strip.
Among their demands are calls for the cancellation of visits from Gaza by families members of Hamas prisoners held in Israel. Some security establishment sources told The Times of Israel that the measure could lead to an escalation in violence with Gaza, while others have advocated the move, saying there only a few dozen Gazan Hamas prisoners in Israel, and that a worsening of their conditions can’t spark unrest.
Hamas’s leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, is known to be sensitive to prisoner issues, as he spent 22 years in an Israeli prison. Despite having been released under the Shalit deal, he was opposed to it, arguing that the swap of 1,027 Palestinians for one Israeli constituted a Palestinian compromise.
Hamas, an Islamist terror group, wrestled control of Gaza from the Palestinian Authority in a bloody coup in 2007. Years of reconciliation efforts have so far yielded little progress.
Last week Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s appointed representative overseeing efforts to retrieve the Hamas-held captive Israelis, Lior Lotan, resigned after three years in the position.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.