Following a Lebanese media report of an impending “information for prisoners” swap deal between Israel and Hamas, Education Minister Naftali Bennett on Sunday urged Israel not to release “live terrorists” for the bodies of dead soldiers.
The comments came after unconfirmed reports over the weekend that Israel and Hamas are moving closer to a deal for the return of three civilians and the bodies of two Israeli soldiers killed in Gaza in 2014. Israeli and Hamas sources plated down the reports.
Bennett, a member of the powerful security cabinet that would probably be the body voting to approve such a deal, pointed to recidivism among Palestinian captives that had been released as part of the 2011 swap with Hamas for captive soldier Gilad Shalit.
“Terrorists released in the Shalit deal returned to murder many Jews,” Bennett said in a statement. He pointed to Yahya Sinwar, who currently leads Hamas in Gaza and had been released as part of the deal.
“He is completely immersed in the planning of ways to kill Jews. With all the pain, we must stand strong,” he said.
A Lebanese paper claimed on Saturday that Israel and Hamas were close to a preliminary deal that could pave the way for the release of three Israeli nationals held captive by the terror group in Gaza, as well as the bodies of two fallen soldiers, Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, who fell in fighting in the strip in 2014.
“You cannot release live terrorists for the bodies of our soldiers,” Bennett said. Instead of releasing prisoners, he urged, “we must increase the pressure and hurt Hamas so holding the bodies is no longer worth it. Kidnapping must be made a burden, not an asset.”
The Hezbollah-linked Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar quoted Hamas sources on Saturday who said the sides were close to an “information deal” that would be similar to the exchange from 2009 in which Israel received a video in which then-captive soldier Gilad Shalit was seen alive and talking — in exchange for the release of 20 female Palestinian prisoners.
Hamas is believed to be holding Avraham Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, as well as Juma Ibrahim Abu Ghanima, whose presence in Gaza is unconfirmed, all of whom entered Gaza of their own accord in recent years and are said by their families to be suffering from mental illness.
There is skepticism in Israel over the report.
On Sunday, a report by the Gulf-based al-Khaleej Online claimed to quote a Hamas official denying there had been any progress in talks.
Shaul’s family said Saturday it had not received any information indicating an imminent deal for the return of his remains.
“We learned of this development only from media reports, and we do not know if this is correct information at all,” the family said in a statement.
The Shaul family added that the coming weeks would mark three years since Operation Protective Edge, three years in which Hamas has held the bodies of Oron and Hadar.
The army determined shortly after the fighting that the two were killed in action before they were taken by Hamas.
“For us the operation never ended, and our lives have become hell. We call on the prime minister: Don’t forsake Golani St. Sgt. Oron Shaul in Hamas captivity,” the family said.
Israeli and Hamas officials also downplayed the report on progress towards a deal.
A senior Hamas official told The Times of Israel on Saturday that the group “has 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.”
He described recent media reports on negotiations as inaccurate.
The 58 were rearrested in June 2014 when three Israeli teens were abducted and killed by a Hamas-linked cell in the West Bank.
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 mysterious 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.
Recent weeks have seen an increase in the number of reports claiming progress in the talks, 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 communicate directly.
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.
Avi Issacharoff contributed to this report.