The report Saturday in the Lebanese news outlet Al-Akhbar was less dramatic than it seemed. “Hamas prepares for a two-stage prisoner deal — will it include Barghouti and Saadat?” (The question mark was in the headline.)
The report wasn’t given much prominence. Just one more news item on the homepage of the Hezbollah-linked website. The reliability of the content, too, sounded like the site had good reason not to play it up.
Yet, as always, every scrap of news in Arabic media about the fallen soldiers and Israeli citizens held by Hamas immediately generated dramatic headlines in Israel.
This despite the fact that all sides involved in discussions and contacts between Israel and Hamas agree on one thing: that there is no deal on the horizon.
So what caused so many Israeli politicians to put out hasty declarations, criticisms and/or congratulations? Not much.
The report was published in a Lebanese paper with ties to Hezbollah by a reporter who lives in Beirut and is thought to be close to the leadership of Hamas in Lebanon — that is, not to the decision-making echelons of Hamas in Gaza who are actually holding the bodies of two IDF soldiers and the three living Israeli civilians.
And what did the report say? “Sources in the Hamas movement that spoke with Al-Akhbar said that the movement is closer than ever to completing an ‘information deal’ with the Zionist enemy that would include release of prisoners from the prisons of the occupation, as well as the [release of] already-released prisoners rearrested after their release.”
The latter is a reference to 58 prisoners released under the Shalit deal in 2011 who were rearrested in June 2014 after three Israeli teens were kidnapped and killed by a West Bank cell linked to Hamas.
The report says the current exchange would be similar to the one carried out in 2009 when Israel released 20 female prisoners in exchange for a video of Gilad Shalit that proved he was alive and well.
The report doesn’t stop there. According to Al-Akhbar, the “information deal” includes Hamas’s demand for the release of all women, minors and parliamentarians in Israeli prisons — all in exchange for information on the fate of two IDF soldiers who Israel has already determined were killed in action.
The second stage of the deal, according to the Lebanese paper, is the “most problematic.” It includes transferring the living Israeli civilians to Israel in exchange for “major” prisoners like top Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti and PFLP secretary general Ahmad Saadat. Finally, the report claimed, Hamas had in its possession a mysterious high-value Israeli prisoner that would enable it to “empty out” Israel’s prisons of all security prisoners.
These details sound like the heartfelt wishes of Hamas’s leaders, or perhaps a trial balloon meant to influence Israeli and Palestinian public opinion while Hamas’s Gazan rulers find themselves in increasingly dire straits.
A close look at Al-Akhbar’s claims suggest it is exceedingly unlikely that Israel would sign such a deal.
Unlike in 2009, Israel knows perfectly well the situation of the three Israelis who entered Gaza, and of the two fallen soldiers who were killed there. There is no significant information left to deliver that could be worth an “information deal” for the Israelis on the Shalit model.
The three Israeli citizens held in Gaza suffer from mental illness. They are not soldiers sent there by the government of Israel.
Indeed, even the Al-Akhbar report itself notes in passing that Israel has not yet agreed to that long list of demands. It notes that Israel has agreed in the past to release the rearrested prisoners who were originally released under the Shalit deal (except for those tried for new crimes, so just 53 of the 58), but only in the framework of a comprehensive deal, not as a precondition for talks.
It’s important to acknowledge that there are regular indirect contacts between Israel and Hamas over a prisoner deal. At times, the talks even register some tiny step forward. Egyptian intelligence is involved, as well as other international actors. Even the Europeans have tried their hand at mediating between the sides.
But in each round, the sides get stuck on Hamas’s opening gambit, its precondition: Hamas demands the release of the 58 rearrested prisoners before any negotiations can even begin. There does not appear to be anyone on the Israeli side willing to offer such a dramatic concession for nothing in return.
So while progress can, perhaps, be discerned around the edges, as a senior Hamas official told The Times of Israel on Saturday, “we haven’t moved a centimeter from our position, and in Israel there doesn’t appear to be any pressure to complete the deal.”
Why, then, would a Hamas official in Lebanon leak such a report to the Arabic press? One obvious motive would be to strengthen Hamas’s precarious standing and Palestinians’ faltering morale amid the Gaza crisis, and perhaps also to awaken a drowsy Israeli public in the hopes of putting pressure on the Israeli government to pursue a deal.
Gazans’ growing distress — the electricity supply dropped to new lows on Saturday, with just 93 megawatt-hours out of the 450 needed by the Strip’s 1.8 million residents — has dramatically hurt Hamas’s position. It demonstrates in no uncertain terms its budgetary troubles and the immense pressure it is under from Sunni Arab states like Egypt and the United Arab Emirates to abandon Qatar, its major funder — with the counter-pressure from Qatar to support it. Just this Friday, the Qatari envoy Muhammad al-Amadi visited the Strip.
All these factors place the group in a very tight spot, the sort of crisis that might be mitigated a little by reports — even if only implausible reports — of a deal coming down the pipeline.