An Egyptian intelligence delegation currently in the Gaza Strip told the Palestinian enclave’s Hamas rulers that, should it seek out an escalation of violence with Israel, it would be “playing with fire,” Hebrew media reported on Saturday, citing Palestinian sources.
According to the sources, the Egyptian delegation warned Hamas that another round of violence would invite a “hard blow” by Israel against the Palestinian terror group, “so much so that there is even a possibility [Israel would] topple Hamas,” Hadashot TV news reported.
“No one from Hamas’s leadership would be immune,” the news report quoted the source as saying.
It was not clear if the warning was issued by Israel and the message was delivered through Egypt, or if Cairo itself was cautioning Hamas.
The delegation has been in Gaza for over a week, according to the report, for talks on Palestinian reconciliation.
The warning came two weeks after four Israeli soldiers were hurt when they attempted to remove an IED disguised as a flag from the Gaza security fence near the city of Khan Younis. In the February 17 incident, two of the soldiers were seriously injured and two were moderately hurt. They were hit by shrapnel, sustaining wounds throughout their bodies, including their eyes, doctors said.
As they pulled the device off the fence, it was apparently detonated remotely.
In response to that attack, and to a rocket fired from Gaza that hit a home in southern Israel later that night, the IDF conducted a large series of strikes against 18 targets in the Strip, including on a tunnel in Gaza City.
Last week, Israel’s military liaison to the Palestinians warned Gazans that the army would respond more aggressively to riots along the security fence.
“We know that the violent clashes on the border are used as cover for terrorist activity, as happened last Saturday. And we will not allow such an event to happen again,” Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai told Palestinians in an Arabic video on social media.
On Thursday, troops said they “neutralized” an improvised explosive device that had been set up on the security fence around the southern Gaza Strip, similar to the one from the February 17 incident.
Earlier Saturday, the Walla news site reported that Hamas has rejected requests by the Egyptian delegation to disclose details about the status of IDF soldiers declared killed in action during fighting in the Strip more than three years ago, and whose remains are apparently being held by the terror group.
Hamas also refused to provide the Egyptians with information about other missing Israeli persons believed to be in Gaza, according to the report.
The Lebanese Al-Akhbar newspaper reported Saturday that Hamas informed Egypt it would not negotiate the matter unless Israel provided a commitment to implement all the clauses of the 2011 Shalit deal, in which the Jewish state released more than 1,000 convicted terrorists.
Last month, US President Donald Trump’s special envoy to the Middle East, Jason Greenblatt, seemed to contradict Israel by implying that IDF Staff Sgt. Oron Shaul is still alive, despite the army declaring him dead.
On July 20, 2014, during the Gaza war of that year, the armored personnel carrier in which Shaul’s unit was traveling was attacked by Hamas terrorists with an anti-tank missile in the Shejaiya neighborhood of Gaza City. Initially, the Israel Defense Forces declared that six soldiers were killed and that Shaul was missing.
Five days later, military forensic specialists determined that Shaul had also been killed in the battle and that his remains had been snatched by Hamas, based on interviews with other soldiers involved in the fighting, as well as evidence from the scene. The staff sergeant’s family did not accept the army’s pronouncement and has repeatedly claimed that he is still alive, calling for him to again be listed as “missing in action.”
In a separate case during the 2014 war, another IDF soldier, Lt. Hadar Goldin, was captured by Hamas terrorists and smuggled into a tunnel in the southern Gaza city of Rafah. He too was first considered kidnapped, but was later determined to have been killed, which his family has accepted. In the case of Goldin, sufficient remains were found in order to hold a funeral in accordance with Jewish law, which requires some portion of the body for burial.
Though the army initially gave both Shaul and Goldin the status of soldiers killed in action whose burial places are unknown, that was later changed to a new designation: soldiers who were killed in action, but are being held captive.
“Hamas must… permit the repatriation of Hadar Goldin’s remains and the release of Oron Shaul, as well as the release of Israeli civilians — Avraham Abera Mengistu, Hisham al-Sayed, and Juma Ibrahim Abu Ghanima,” Greenblatt wrote in a tweet, one in a series on how the terrorist group is violating international law and harming Palestinians in Gaza.
In his tweet, the envoy also appeared to go against official Israeli policy concerning one of three Israeli citizens who entered the Gaza Strip following Operation Protective Edge.
As a result, in discussions, Israeli officials generally mention only Mengistu and al-Sayed as being in Hamas captivity.
Israel believes Mengistu and al-Sayed are currently in Hamas captivity and has regularly called for their release. The two men, who have apparent histories of mental illness, each entered the coastal enclave voluntarily in 2014 and 2015, respectively. However, the status of the third, Abu Ghanima, is less clear, and he is not necessarily considered to have been taken hostage by the terror group.
Israeli officials have reportedly been negotiating with Hamas through third parties in order to secure the release of the two fallen soldiers and two civilians, so far to no avail.
If the soldiers were still alive or even if their statuses were unclear, it could give Hamas far greater leverage in negotiations.
In 2011, Israel released over 1,000 convicted terrorists from its prisons, including the current leader of Hamas in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, in exchange for one IDF soldier, Gilad Shalit. The deal has been regularly criticized by some Israeli officials, including Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, as unacceptably lopsided.
Hamas, in an apparent attempt to reach a similar deal as in 2011, has been encouraging the belief that Shaul and Goldin were not killed.
Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report