Israel and Hamas are close to a preliminary deal that could pave the way for the release of a number of Israeli nationals held captive by the terror group in Gaza, a Lebanese paper claimed Saturday. However, officials from both sides downplayed the report.
According to the Al-Akhbar daily, quoting Hamas sources, the sides are close to an “information deal” that would be similar to the exchange from 2009 in which Israel received a video in which captive soldier Gilad Shalit was seen alive and talking in exchange for the release of 20 female Palestinian prisoners.
Hamas, an Islamist terror group, holds the bodies of IDF soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, who the army determined were killed in action in the 2014 Gaza war.
It is also believed to be holding three Israeli men who crossed into the coastal territory of their own accord: Avraham Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, as well as Juma Ibrahim Abu Ghanima, whose presence in Gaza is unconfirmed.
A senior Hamas official told The Times of Israel on Saturday, however, that the group “have not budged even one inch in our demands.”
“In recent times there have been several attempts to mediate between Israel and Hamas about the prisoners, however we made it clear that we do not intend to start negotiations until the 58 prisoners from the Shalit deal who were freed and rearrested are released.”
The 58 were rearrested in 2014 when three Israeli teens were abducted in the West Bank (it later emerged that they had been killed almost immediately) before any advancement in negotiations between the parties could take place.
He described recent media reports on negotiations as inaccurate.
An Israeli official confirmed that there were contacts and some progress, but said it was not significant and the sides were still very far apart. The Israeli reiterated that there was no intention to release prisoners in exchange for information.
The Al-Akhbar report also quoted the source as saying that Hamas had a mystery high-value Israeli prisoner
“Apart from the soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, the group is holding someone who will ensure the release of all the prisoners in Israeli jails,” the report said.
It also said that the exchange was expected to take place in the next three months.
In recent weeks there have been increased reports of progress, particularly following the return of Hamas’s leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, from a visit to Egypt earlier last month.
While in Egypt, Sinwar met with a number of officials, as well as former senior Fatah official Mohammad Dahlan, who was involved in the 2011 deal that led to the release of Shalit in exchange for some 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.
Egypt is thought to be mediating between Israel and Hamas, who do not have direct communication.
In April, then-Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal hinted that a prisoner exchange was in the works between the two sides, while in February Hamas confirmed that it was engaged in talks through third-party mediators over a possible agreement, but said a deal had been rejected for not meeting its minimum demands.