Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Sunday denied reports of a “breakthrough” in talks with Hamas over returning Israeli citizens and bodies of soldiers held in the Gaza Strip in exchange for Palestinian prisoners.
According to a report at the weekend in Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, Israel and Hamas are on the brink of an initial deal in which the Islamist Gaza rulers would provide information about the missing Israelis in return for the release of groups of prisoners. But both sides have downplayed the claim.
“We have no contact with Hamas. There’s an ongoing effort to release our soldiers and civilians held in Hamas captivity,” Liberman said in an interview with Galey Israel radio. “And there’s no breakthrough.”
Three Israeli civilians, all said to be mentally unstable, are believed to have entered Gaza and to be held by Hamas.
They include Avraham Abera Mengistu, an Israeli Jew of Ethiopian descent, and two Muslim Bedouins, Hisham al-Sayed and Juma Ibrahim Abu Ghanima.
Two Israeli soldiers, Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, are believed to have been killed in the 2014 war in Gaza and their remains held by Hamas.
While Israel says it does not speak directly with Hamas, indirect negotiations with the Islamist movement led to the 2011 deal that saw it release more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for soldier Gilad Shalit, who was kidnapped by Hamas during a cross-border raid into Israel and then held captive for five years.
“We don’t negotiate with terror organizations,” Liberman said, calling Saturday’s Lebanese report “psychological warfare” by Hamas.
A source close to Hamas told AFP that “negotiations are underway with Western parties to reach a partial deal involving a swap of information about the fate of prisoners held by the (Hamas military wing) Al Qassam Brigades for the release of prisoners from occupation prisons,” or Israel.
“The deal would be for prisoners released in the Shalit deal who were rearrested since,” the source said, noting that “the final points have not yet been crystallized.”
Following the Shalit deal, Israel commissioned a number of experts to set forth binding principles in negotiations on abducted soldiers which stipulated that lower numbers of prisoners could be released, and there should be no negotiations over remains.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett, meanwhile, spoke out against releasing “live terrorists for the bodies of our soldiers,” calling instead to “increase the pressure and hurt Hamas so holding the bodies is no longer worth it.”