Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar on Sunday denied that there are any ongoing talks for a prisoner swap with Israel, explaining that the current political deadlock in Jerusalem means there is no government that can decide on such an agreement, Channel 13 television news reported.
His remarks came after earlier in the day Israel’s government coordinator for prisoners and missing persons Yaron Blum said that while there had been progress in efforts to secure the release of Israeli civilians and the remains of IDF soldiers held by the terror group, Hamas was being unrealistic in its demands from Israel.
Hamas, a terror group which seeks to destroy Israel, is believed to be holding three Israeli citizens — Avraham Abera Mengistu, Hisham al-Sayed and Juma Ibrahim Abu Ghanima — who are all said to have entered the Gaza Strip of their own accord in the period 2014-2015.
Israel has also long demanded that Hamas release the remains of IDF soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, who were killed during a 50-day conflict with Hamas in 2014.
Sinwar said there are no negotiations as Israel has no active government or cabinet that can discuss major issues such as the prisoners or the threat from Iran, according to the report which did not say when or where Sinwar made the comments.
Two rounds of elections within six months have failed to produce a sworn-in government in Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues to lead a caretaker government while his chief rival, Blue and White Party leader MK Benny Gantz has been charged with trying to form a coalition after Netanyahu, who was given first try, failed in the task.
The report came as Israeli leaders were meeting to discuss a weekend flareup that saw a volley of rockets from Gaza shot at nearby Israeli communities, drawing airstrikes against Hamas targets in the Strip. Israeli authorities reportedly believe the Islamic Jihad group was responsible for the rocket fire and not Hamas.
A deal over the Israeli captives and remains is believed to be one of several issues holding up a long-term ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas.
Blum, who spoke with the Kan public broadcast radio, said that Israel is working through a number of mediator channels and that there is progress toward a deal to release the prisoners, but that Hamas “is not yet ripe for a deal — its demands are crazy. It doesn’t understand that the Israeli public has changed and there will not be a second Shalit deal.”
IDF soldier Gilad Shalit was captured in 2006 and ultimately freed by Hamas in 2011 in exchange for Israel releasing more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.
Blum said that Mengistu and al-Sayed are believed to both be alive.
He also claimed that the men had entered Gaza of their own accord on previous occasions and were returned by Hamas until finally detained, but later apologized for the comment.
Blum said al-Sayed had entered Gaza twice and Mengistu once, but were sent back by Hamas. However, when they each entered the Palestinian enclave again, they were arrested and held “contrary to all international laws.”
The Mengistu family responded in a statement slamming Blum for getting his facts wrong.
“It is particularly serious that the coordinator of activities is spreading these baseless things concerning Avra Mengistu,” the statement said. “One would expect from someone whose role this is to show feeling and accuracy in details, and not to add to the Mengistu family’s pain with hurtful and factually wrong remarks.”
The Mengistu family asked that Blum apologize, and he did, saying that he had attributed the previous border crossings to Mengistu when in fact they were only made by al-Sayed.
“I apologize from the bottom of my heart,” Blum said.
At cabinet meeting Sunday, Netanyahu said he backed Blum saying “we will continue our efforts to return the prisoners and missing people. Regarding this matter I want to say that I have full faith in Yaron Blum who is doing his work in a reliable, serious, and professional manner.”
Avera Mengistu, whose family has said suffers from a mental illness, crossed into northern Gaza in September 2014 by way of the beach. Al-Sayed crossed into Gaza in 2015 and Ghanima in 2016. The families of both men have said they also suffer from mental illness, although it is not clear if Ghanima is being held against his will.
Mengistu’s family and those of the deceased IDF soldiers Goldin and Shaul have been critical of the government saying it is not doing enough to secure the return of their loved ones.
In September Mengistu family members met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas who promised to help in securing the civilian prisoners’ release.
However, the West Bank-based Abbas and Hamas have been at loggerheads for years and several efforts at reconciliation have failed.