A senior Hamas official denied Sunday reports that Israel and Hamas were discussing the release of two Israelis held by the Gaza terror group, and said the group had “more bargaining chips that have not yet become public.”
Speaking to the Hamas-affiliated Al Resalah news site, the group’s foreign policy chief Osama Hamdan said there was no contact between Hamas and Israel regarding the captive Israelis, the Haaretz daily reported.
Two Israelis, Avraham Mengistu and a second captive, an unnamed Bedouin, have been held in Gaza for months. A court-imposed gag order on the story was lifted Thursday following a court petition by two Israeli media outlets.
Israel officials say they believe both are alive and being held by Hamas, despite mixed signals from the group.
Israel is also negotiating for the return of the bodies of two soldiers killed during last summer’s war in Gaza — Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin.
There have been no other reports of Israelis being held in Gaza.
Hamdan said Israel had tried to obtain information on Mengistu and the second man in the past, but Hamas had refused to offer any information.
Officials from the terror group have demanded that in exchange for any information, Israel must free any Palestinian prisoners released in the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange deal who have been subsequently rearrested.
He called on Israel to publicize the number of captives it knew were held by Hamas.
Hamdan’s statement follows a Saturday report by Russian news site Sputnik according to which former British prime minister Tony Blair was serving as the go-between in negotiations between Israel and Hamas, and had met in recent days with Hamas political chief Khaled Mashaal and other top officials.
Sputnik cited an unnamed Hamas official as the source for the report.
Israeli sources would not confirm the news about Blair’s involvement, except to deny previous reports that Egyptian or German officials were serving as mediators. Egypt helped mediate the last major negotiation between Israel and Hamas over the release of IDF Cpl. Gilad Shalit.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the Mengistu family on Friday for the first time since Avraham disappeared into the Gaza Strip last September.
Israel has said it expects Hamas to release the captives on humanitarian grounds and has indicated it will not release any prisoners in exchange for the two, who apparently crossed into the Palestinian enclave of their own accord.
The publication of the news Thursday has sparked criticism of the government’s handling of the case.