A senior Hamas official confirmed Wednesday to The Times of Israel that Qatar and Egypt are involved in mediating between his organization and Israel, but stressed that Hamas will not even begin to talk about releasing Israeli civilians it has detained along with the remains of two IDF soldiers unless Israel first releases dozens of Palestinians it is holding.
Hamas is believed to be detaining Avraham Mengistu and Juma Ibrahim Abu Anima, two Israeli men who crossed into Gaza of their own accord, as well as a third, unnamed Israeli civilian whose presence in Gaza is unconfirmed. The Islamist terror group also holds the bodies of IDF soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, who the army says were killed in the 2014 Gaza war.
A senior Hamas official, who requested to remain anonymous, told The Times of Israel that the organization’s position was clear.
“We are demanding the release of 58 prisoners from the Shalit deal who were arrested after the kidnapping of the three teenagers before we will even talk about a deal for the return of the bodies [of missing soldiers] and those missing people,” he said, referring to the 2014 abduction and murder of three Israeli teens in the West Bank by a Hamas cell. In the days following the abduction, as large numbers of IDF soldiers combed the Hebron area in the hope of finding the teenagers, hundreds of members of Hamas were arrested, among them some of the 1,027 Palestinian prisoners who had been set free in 2011 in exchange for IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, who was kidnapped and held captive for five years in the Gaza Strip.
The Arab-Israeli news site Kul al-Arab was the first to report on the talks Wednesday, citing a “reliable” source in Hamas. According to the Kul al-Arab report, Israel was willing to release 60 prisoners as long as they would agree to be expelled to Qatar. Hamas reportedly refused the Israeli offer.
The senior Hamas source who spoke to The Times of Israel said Jerusalem had shown willingness to talk about the release of 58 prisoners as part of a broader deal that would see the return of the two missing Israelis and the soldiers’ bodies. However, Hamas is insisting the prisoners be released even before negotiations begin in earnest.
“We will not enter into any discussion about expulsions or no expulsions, because it is unacceptable for Israel to continue to hold in prison people who were released under an earlier deal,” the Hamas official said. “These people have been under arrest for more than two and a half years without having committed crimes or attacks. No one can guarantee that Israel won’t rearrest them again [after they are released].”
The official confirmed that there are mediators on the matter between Israel and Hamas, but stressed that so far there has been no breakthrough.
He also confirmed that Qatar, Egypt, and others are involved in the mediation. The Hebrew-language Walla website reported in the past that Qatari envoy Muhammad al-Amadi has mediated between the sides on the possibility of a long-term ceasefire and also concerning the missing Israelis and the soldiers’ bodies.
Responding to Wednesday’s reports, Hamas official Salah Bardawil denied there was any mediation between Israel and Hamas through Qatar, or any other country, in comments to the Gaza-based Safa News.
The report of Qatari mediation follows a report from last week that Egypt, too, has been involved in mediating a deal between Israel and Hamas.
According to a report in the Al-Araby Al-Jadeed newspaper, senior Hamas official Moussa Abu Marzouk discussed a prisoner swap with Egyptian officials in December.
Abu Marzouk hailed the Egyptian mediation, but preconditioned negotiations on Jerusalem freeing the 60 Hamas members released in the Shalit deal but since rearrested.
That represented a significant change in the demands of Hamas, which has for over a year consistently demanded Israel release hundreds of the so-called “Shalit prisoners.”
In a renewed effort to pressure Hamas into returning the Israeli civilians and the remains of the two soldiers, the high-level security cabinet ruled last Sunday that Hamas terrorists killed while carrying out attacks against Israeli civilians or security forces would be buried quietly, instead of being returned to their families.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhum told AFP that the decision would “not give positive results,” without elaborating on the possible consequences.
The move by the security cabinet followed the release a day earlier by the Palestinian group of video footage showing a mock birthday party for Shaul, one of the two soldiers whose remains are in Gaza.
Marrisa Newman contributed to this report.