Hamas is reportedly aiming to secure the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners held in Israel in exchange for the return of the bodies of two IDF soldiers and two Israeli citizens believed to be captive in the Gaza Strip. its hoped-for deal would apparently be along the lines of the 2011 prisoner exchange for captured soldier Gilad Shalit.
The Hebrew daily Yedioth Ahronoth said Monday that while Israel has been seeking — through foreign intermediaries — to initiate negotiations for the return of the civilians and of the soldiers’ bodies, it is not willing to give anything away just to bring Hamas to the negotiating table. Nor will Israel agree to an exchange akin to one that saw 1,027 Palestinians freed in return for Shalit — a deal brokered with the help of a German diplomat.
“Hamas wants a Shalit 2 deal, with the release of hundreds of prisoners,” the paper quoted an unnamed senior Israeli official as saying.
The issue of the missing Israelis has come to the forefront of political debate following a reconciliation deal between Israel and Turkey last week, which ended a six-year diplomatic rift.
The families of Lt. Hadar Goldin and Sgt. Oron Shaul, both killed in the 2014 war in Gaza, as well as that of Avraham Abera Mengistu, who disappeared in the Strip later in 2014 and is believed to be still alive, have long called for the government to guarantee that the return of their sons was included in the Turkey agreement. A fourth, unidentified, Israeli man is also being held in Gaza, according to Jerusalem.
Hamas has reportedly refused to even entertain the possibility of negotiating a swap until Israel releases all the Palestinians freed in the Shalit deal who were subsequently rearrested by Israel.
“The Israeli public began the difficult internal debate too early,” the Israeli official said, according to Yedioth. “We don’t intend to pay for signs of life, otherwise we will pay for every precondition like that.”
But senior Hamas official Salah Bardawil flatly denied the report and claimed there was no contact of any sort between the two sides regarding prisoners.
According to Bardawil, Hamas “does not know of any direct or indirect negotiations concerning a prisoner swap deal between Hamas and Israel,” Yedioth’s Hebrew-language sister website Ynet news reported.
Israel and Hamas do not officially maintain direct contact, and any deal would have to be mediated by international parties.
Hamas in April seemed to publicly acknowledged for the first time that it is holding the four Israelis, and even published their photos.
The London-based daily Asharq al-Awsat at the time 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.
Little is known of the whereabouts of Mengistu, who climbed over the Gaza security fence from Israel in September last year. Family members have described him as “unwell” and urged Hamas to consider his condition and return him to Israel immediately.
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.