Family of fallen soldier held in Gaza has ‘no info’ on possible swap

Following Lebanese report on progress towards deal, Shaul family says it has not heard of any negotiations at all

Zehava Shaul, shown with her late husband Herzl, has been seeking answers about the fate of her son since he was captured by Hamas on July 20, 2014 in Gaza City. (JTA/Ben Sales)
Zehava Shaul, shown with her late husband Herzl, has been seeking answers about the fate of her son since he was captured by Hamas on July 20, 2014 in Gaza City. (JTA/Ben Sales)

The family of an Israeli soldier whose body is being held by Hamas said Saturday it had not received any information indicating an imminent deal for the return of his remains.

A Lebanese paper had claimed Saturday that Israel and Hamas were close to a preliminary deal that could pave the way for the release of a number of Israeli nationals held captive by the terror group in Gaza.

But the family of Oron Shaul said it had not been made aware of any such progress.

“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 family said it had no been told of any talks being held with Hamas for the return of Oron’s body.

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 a second soldier, Hadar Goldin. The army determined 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 Staff Sgt. Oron Shaul in Hamas captivity,” the family said.

Israeli and Hamas officials also downplayed the report on progress towards a deal.

The Al-Akhbar daily quoted Hamas sources 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 also believed to be holding three Israeli men who crossed into the coastal territory of their own accord: Avraham Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, as well as Juma Ibrahim Abu Ghanima, whose presence in Gaza is unconfirmed.

IDF soldiers Oron Shaul (left) and Hadar Goldin (right) (Flash90)
IDF soldiers Oron Shaul (left) and Hadar Goldin (right) (Flash90)

A senior Hamas official told The Times of Israel on Saturday, however, that the group “have 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.”

The 58 were rearrested in 2014 when three Israeli teens were abducted in the West Bank (it later emerged that they had been killed almost immediately) before any advancement in negotiations between the parties could take place.

He described recent media reports on negotiations as inaccurate.

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 mystery 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.

In recent weeks there have been increased reports of progress, 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 have direct communication.

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.

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