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Hamas chief vows to free Palestinian prisoners in Israel

Mashaal rejects foreign mediation for prisoner swap so long as inmates rearrested after Shalit deal are still held

Dov Lieber is The Times of Israel's Arab affairs correspondent.

Hamas political leader Khaled Mashaal at a rally in Hamas's honor in Cape Town, South Africa, October 21, 2015. (AFP/Rodger Bosch)
Hamas political leader Khaled Mashaal at a rally in Hamas's honor in Cape Town, South Africa, October 21, 2015. (AFP/Rodger Bosch)

Hamas political chief Khaled Mashaal said Sunday that his group “must soon free all Palestinian prisoners” in Israeli jails and would not wait for negotiations with Israel to do so.

Mashaal, in a televised speech on the occasion of Palestinian Prisoners Day, which takes place annually on April 17, said that Hamas would not open negotiations with Israel about anything until all the so-called “Shalit prisoners” who had been rearrested were freed.

In 2011, kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was released in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian detainees, in a deal brokered with the help of a German diplomat. Israel rearrested some of those released in the deal in the summer of 2014 during a search for three Israeli teenagers who were kidnapped by a Hamas cell. It later emerged that the teens had been killed shortly after their abduction.

“Our goal is not the completion of a deal, but the cleaning out of [Israeli] prisons,” he said.

Israel and Hamas do not officially maintain direct contacts, and any deal would have to be mediated by international parties.

Palestinian men look graffiti marking Palestinian Prisoner Day in Gaza City on April 16, 2016. / AFP PHOTO / MAHMUD HAMS
Palestinian men look graffiti marking Palestinian Prisoner Day in Gaza City on April 16, 2016. / AFP PHOTO / MAHMUD HAMS

Mashaal confirmed in his speech earlier reports that foreign parties were trying to mediate prisoner swaps between Hamas and Israel, but insisted such attempts would not bear fruit.

“We will not succumb to conditions [from foreign governments], and we reject them completely,” Mashaal said.

Abu Obeida, the spokesperson for Hamas’s Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades military branch, said his group was eagerly anticipating the freeing of Palestinian prisoners.

“What the Qassam Brigades has in its possession will lead to an honorable deal that will gladden the Palestinian people, and will lead soon to the release of our heroic prisoners,” he said in an appearance on Palestinian TV in honor of Prisoners Day.

Screen capture from a speech given by Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigade's Spokesperson Abu Obeida on April 17, 2016. He said that the terror group has assets that will lead to the release of Palestinian prisoners soon (Courtesy: Facebook)
Screen capture from a speech given by Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigade’s Spokesperson Abu Obeida on April 17, 2016. He said that the terror group has assets that will lead to the release of Palestinian prisoners soon (Courtesy: Facebook)

Hamas claims to be keeping captive 29-year-old Avraham Mengistu, as well as another Israeli, a Bedouin man whose name has not been released for publication. The two reportedly crossed into the Gaza Strip of their own accord. Both hostages reportedly suffer from psychological issues.

Hamas is also known to be holding the remains of two soldiers killed in the 2014 Gaza war, Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin.

‘We are morally superior’

Mashaal, in his speech, claimed Hamas has the upper hand in the ethical sphere of the conflict. “We are morally superior to the occupation as is evidenced by our treatment of the prisoner Shalit,” he said.

In January, the Gaza-based terror group released a number of images and videos meant to show that Shalit was treated well during his five-year captivity, including one video showing the hostage barbecuing with his captors.

Still image from a Hamas video released on January 3, 2016, apparently showing IDF soldier Gilad Shalit tending a barbecue during his captivity in Gaza. (screen capture)
Still image from a Hamas video released on January 3, 2016, apparently showing IDF soldier Gilad Shalit tending a barbecue during his captivity in Gaza. (screen capture)

Mashaal, however, did not discuss the conditions of the Israeli prisoners currently held in Gaza.

Hamas has denied the International Red Cross access to Israeli captives and has refused to give any details about their physical conditions.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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