Report: Hamas, Israel seeking prisoner swap deal before national elections

Terror group sources tell Arab media talks renewed through intermediaries; but organization’s official spokesman denies report, says Jerusalem ‘unwilling’ to advance accord

Members of Hamas's Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades (Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Members of Hamas's Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades (Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

A Hamas spokesman on Saturday evening denied an Arab newspaper report that, quoting unidentified sources in the organization, said Israel was looking to complete a prisoner swap deal before national elections on April 9.

“There is now news on the prisoner issue,” the spokesman told Channel 13 news. “Israel is unwilling to carry out a new prisoner swap, though the issue of prisoners is a top priority for Hamas.”

The report earlier in the London-based Al-Araby Al-Jadeed newspaper quoted source in the group as saying indirect talks with Israel had been renewed “amid a strong willingness to reach a deal ahead of the elections, in light of the drop in support of [Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu in the polls.”

The Hamas sources said the organization was negotiating with Israel through mediators from an unnamed European country, as well as Egyptian and German intermediaries who have reportedly been working on the alleged deal for months.

Hamas is demanding the release of Palestinians who have been rearrested since they were freed in 2011 as part of a deal in which Israel exchanged 1,027 terrorists for IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, who was captured and held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip or five years.

Illustrative: Hamas members watch as a bus carrying Palestinian prisoners arrives at the Rafah crossing with Egypt in the southern Gaza Strip on October 18, 2011. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash 90)

The terror group is currently holding the remains of Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, Israel Defense Forces soldiers killed during the 2014 war between Israel and the Gaza-based terror group. Hamas is also believed to be holding two Israeli civilians who entered Gaza of their own volition, Avraham Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed.

The sources on Saturday said Hamas’ military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, “will not provide any information on the hostages without anything in return, and there will be no negotiations before Israel releases those it rearrested after the Shalit deal,” according to Ynet.

Left to right: Oron Shaul, Hadar Goldin and Avraham Mengistu. (Flash90/The Times of Israel)

Numerous reports in recent years have said Israel and Hamas were advancing toward a prisoner exchange but a deal has yet to materialize.

Israel has accused Hamas of promoting the weekly “March of Return” protests on the border, which it says have been used by the terror group to carry out attacks on troops and attempts to breach the security fence.

The months-long violence has included a number of exchanges of fire between Israel and Gaza-based terror groups that have included rocket barrages from the Strip and retaliatory Israeli strikes, followed by ceasefires unilaterally declared by Hamas and other Palestinian factions.

The Hamas-led protests have also seen thousands of acres of forest and farmland burned by incendiary devices carried by balloons and kites launched from the coastal enclave.

Israel has demanded an end to the violent demonstrations along the border in any future ceasefire agreement.

On Friday, around 10,000 Palestinians participated in the riots, throwing rocks, firebombs and hand grenades at Israeli troops, and burning tires. Israeli soldiers reportedly responded with tear gas and, in some cases, live fire.

Palestinians carry away an injured protester during clashes with Israeli forces at a demonstration along the border with Israel east of Gaza City on January 18, 2019. (Said KHATIB / AFP)

The Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry said that 19 people were injured in the clashes, including two members of the press and three medical personnel. Earlier on Friday, Israeli soldiers detained an unarmed suspect who crossed into Israel from Gaza, Hebrew-language media reported.

The “March of Return” organizing committee on Friday demanded that Israel lift its blockade of the coastal enclave, saying that they were “ready to stand up to Israel and its policies.”

Israel has imposed a blockade on Gaza since the Hamas terror group, which is sworn to Israel’s destruction, seized the territory from the internationally backed Palestinian Authority in 2007. It says the blockade is in place in order to prevent weapons and other military equipment from entering the Strip.

In recent weeks, Hamas has ramped up its threats of renewed violence along the Gaza border after Israel halted the transfer of $15 million of Qatari funds to the terror group after an exchange of fire.

The funds are part of a series of six $15 million deposits Israel is allowing Qatar to deliver to Hamas as part of a highly contentious ceasefire agreement. The funds are meant ostensibly to pay the group’s civilian workers, though some Israeli officials — including former defense minister Avigdor Liberman — maintain the money will be used for Hamas’s terrorist activities.

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