Egyptian mediators are optimistic that Israel and Hamas will soon implement the first stage of a prisoner exchange between the two sides, a critical step in stabilizing the fragile Gaza ceasefire, the pro-Hamas Lebanese daily al-Akhbar reported on Tuesday.
According to anonymous sources cited by Al-Akhbar, as part of an initial round of a prisoner deal, Hamas would trade information on the fate of two Israeli civilians and the bodies of two Israeli soldiers held by Hamas in Gaza for the release of some female Palestinian security prisoners.
The report didn’t detail the identities or the number of prisoners that would be freed.
Since the May fighting between Israel and the Hamas terror group, Jerusalem has sought to impose heightened restrictions on Gaza, significantly limiting imports and exports. During the war, Israeli airstrikes and Palestinian rockets caused at least $290 million worth of damage to the Gaza Strip, international assessors reported last week.
Israel and Egypt have blockaded the Gaza Strip for nearly 15 years in an attempt to weaken the enclave’s Hamas rulers, who took charge in a 2007 coup. Both countries say the measure is necessary to prevent the terror group from obtaining weapons and materials to build fortifications and tunnels.
Israeli officials have said they will condition allowing the reconstruction of Gaza on progress and easing the heightened restrictions on reaching a prisoner exchange with Hamas that secures the return of Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed and the bodies of IDF soldiers Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul who died in 2014 fighting.
But Hamas has regularly rejected the Israeli attempt to publicly tie the reconstruction of Gaza to the long-running attempt to reach a swap acceptable to both sides. Hamas’s Gaza governor, Yahya Sinwar, has publicly promised to secure the release of over a thousand prisoners in a potential deal.
“We will not accept the prisoner file being tied to the reconstruction, or the siege, or Palestinian rights. Our brothers in Egypt understand this,” senior Hamas official Khalil al-Hayya said in May. His stance has since been echoed repeatedly by the Hamas leadership.
Israel and Hamas have been holding indirect negotiations in Cairo, with Egyptian mediation, in an attempt to make progress on both the reconstruction and prisoner exchange issues. In apparent signs of progress, Israel has eased some of the new barriers to imports and exports.
On Monday, Israel expanded the Gaza fishing zone from nine to twelve nautical miles; just as importantly, it allowed Gazan businessmen to begin exporting some goods to the West Bank and Israel. The Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha is set to take place in about a week; the holiday spending spree associated with the festival is seen as a key moment for many businesses.
According to the Al-Akhbar report, the first stage of the planned prisoner exchange could happen soon. Once the first phase of the exchange is completed, al-Akhbar said, Egyptian mediators, believe that the two issues could proceed more smoothly along separate tracks.
“The Egyptians believe that the implementation of the first phase of the deal will get rid of the connection between the reconstruction of Gaza… and the prisoner exchange matter, which is embarrassing for Israel,” al-Akhbar said.
But international observers, including the United Nations, have warned that a failure to make serious progress in the ceasefire talks could lead to another round of fighting.
“The cessation of hostilities reached last month has largely held but remains fragile,” said UN Middle East envoy Tor Wennesland in a statement last week.
Egyptian intelligence is convinced that the Israelis will continue to loosen restrictions to avoid another escalation, al-Akhbar reported.