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Gantz says Gaza rebuilding hinges on return of captives, long-term quiet

Hamas says it is willing to negotiate a prisoner exchange, but rejects linking issue to talks on Gaza ceasefire, reconstruction

Defense Minister Benny Gantz addresses the media in Jerusalem on May 31, 2021. (Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz addresses the media in Jerusalem on May 31, 2021. (Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz said Monday that the rehabilitation of the Gaza Strip following an 11-day conflict with Palestinian terror groups will be conditioned on the return of two Israeli civilians and the bodies of two IDF soldiers, as well as long-term quiet.

In a briefing with foreign reporters, Gantz said that Israel will continue to supply Gaza with products like medical supplies “needed for basic humanitarian existence,” but Israel would need its demands met before allowing the reconstruction of the Strip.

“What was is not what will be,” Gantz said, according to a Hebrew-language statement from his office on his meeting with the journalists.

“I spoke to the Americans, Egyptians, and many other international representatives and clarified that… we will demand that the Gaza Strip’s rehabilitation be accompanied by long-term quiet and the return of the soldiers [remains, held by Hamas since 2014],” he said.

“We are willing to help with fixing the area, rebuilding it, construction, etc. But it’s conditioned with the return of our boys back home, the abducted soldiers,” he said in English, according to the AP.

Gantz also said the rules have changed in Israel’s dealings with Hamas and vowed a much harsher response to any violations of the new cease-fire. “We will brutally retaliate, but we will do it in our own time and will not accept the previous reality to show itself again,” he said.

“In addition, we will work to strengthen our relationship with the Palestinian Authority, which I hope will want to take responsibility for some of what happens in Gaza,” the Hebrew statement quoted him as saying.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz points at targets hit by Israeli army in Gaza, during a press briefing in Jerusalem on May 31, 2021. (Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP)

His comments come as Egypt is attempting to negotiate a long-term ceasefire between Israel and the Gaza terror groups, with the prisoner swap a longtime key sticking point.

Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar said earlier Monday that the terror group is ready for “immediate negotiations” to reach a prisoner exchange with Israel.

Sinwar made his comment following a meeting with Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel. The Egyptian top spy visited the coastal enclave after a series of meetings in Tel Aviv and Ramallah with senior Israeli and Palestinian officials.

“The matter of prisoner exchanges saw some movement during the past period, but it came to a halt due to what [Israel] went through,” Sinwar said, a possible reference to Israel’s internal political turmoil and repeated elections.

Hamas holds Israeli civilians Hisham al-Sayed and Avera Mengistu along with the bodies of two Israeli soldiers, Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul.

Clockwise from top left: Oron Shaul, Avera Mengistu, Hadar Goldin and Hisham al-Sayed (Flash 90/Courtesy)

The last major prisoner exchange between Israel and Hamas was in 2011. In a controversial move, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu authorized the release of 1,027 Palestinian security prisoners in exchange for captive soldier Gilad Shalit.

One of the prisoners released in the exchange was Sinwar, who had been sentenced to life in Israeli jail for murder. He played a key role in the Shalit negotiations, with one of the Israeli negotiators later saying: “At [Sinwar’s] will, there would be a deal, and at his will, there would be no deal.”

It is unclear how many prisoners Hamas will demand in exchange for the two living Israelis and the two bodies. After Sinwar’s meeting with Kamel, the Hamas leader told reporters cryptically to “write down the number 1,111.”

“You will recall it well [in the future],” Sinwar said.

Israel has repeatedly said it will not repeat the terms of the Shalit deal, which saw many of the released prisoners return to terror.

But Hamas has consistently said it rejects linking rebuilding Gaza after the recent hostilities to a deal with Israel on the captives.

Yahya Sinwar (R), Hamas’ political chief in Gaza, embraces General Abbas Kamel (L), Egypt’s intelligence chief, as the latter arrives for a meeting with leaders of Hamas in Gaza City on May 31, 2021. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

“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, who serves as Sinwar’s deputy in the Gaza Strip, said Monday.

During his briefing Monday, Gantz also addressed a future war with Lebanon’s Hezbollah terrorist organization.

“What we saw in Gaza will be a tenth of what will happen in Lebanon,” he said, referring to Israel’s Operation Guardian of the Walls earlier this month. “It will be a complex fight because Hezbollah is hiding 100,000 missiles, some of them precision and long-range [missiles], and all of them are [embedded] among the civilian population,” said Gantz.

He also warned that the Iran nuclear deal, which the US is negotiating to rejoin, is not sufficiently strong. The treaty, in its current form, leaves Iran six to seven years away from obtaining nuclear weapons, Gantz said.

Aaron Boxerman contributed to this report.

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