Hamas leader hints prisoner exchange deal in the works

Khaled Mashaal says group working ‘behind the scenes’ to ensure all Palestinian prisoners are freed from Israeli jails

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 leader Khaled Mashaal indicated Saturday that members of the terror organization imprisoned in Israel will soon be released as a result of behind the scenes efforts by the group to secure their release.

“The release of all the Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons [will take place] soon,” Hebrew media reports quoted him as saying at a conference on the issue.

“Not all of the efforts on the issue of prisoners are public. The efforts that Hamas has invested behind the scenes will be seen in the future,” he said.

“We have set for ourselves a goal of cleaning all the Israeli prisons of Palestinians,” he added, according to the Haaretz daily.

In February, Hamas confirmed that it was engaged in talks through third-party mediators over a possible prisoner exchange with Israel, but said a deal had been rejected for not meeting their minimum demands.

Hamas’s confirmation of the talks followed Israeli media reports that Israel was seeking to reach a deal with the rulers of the Gaza Strip to secure the release of three Israeli men who crossed into the coastal territory of their own accord: Avraham Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, as well as Juma Ibrahim Abu Ghanima, whose presence in Gaza is unconfirmed.

Hamas, an Islamist terror group that seeks to destroy Israel, also holds the bodies of IDF soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, who the army determined were killed in action in the 2014 Gaza war.

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

A senior Hamas source told The Times of Israel at the time that it wanted Israel to release 60 members of the terror group arrested after being freed in an earlier exchange.

Hamas demands that Israel release all prisoners from the 2011 exchange for Gilad Shalit who were rearrested in 2014 when three Israeli teens were abducted in the West Bank (it later emerged that they had been killed almost immediately) before any advancement in negotiations between the parties can take place.

In his reported remarks Saturday Mashaal did not say what conditions had changed since February that would allow for a deal to now take place.

Mashaal also reiterated on Saturday the terror group’s demand that its members who were rearrested as part of the Shalit deal be released as a condition for negotiations over a prisoner exchange.

“If Israel does not fulfill its obligations from the Shalit deal how will it fulfill [them] in (another) deal,” he said, according to Channel 10.

“For any information concerning the captured Israelis there will be a price, Israel’s threats don’t scare the Hamas movement.”

Despite the reports of a deal for a prisoner exchange between Israel and Hamas being negotiated by mediators — Egypt or Qatar, or both — senior Hamas official Mahmoud al-Zahar said last month that the recent assassination of one of the terror group’s military commanders, Mazen Faqha, which it blames on Israel, would impede the negotiations for a prisoner exchange with the Jewish state.

Mazen Faqha, upon his release after the Shalit deal in 2011. (Screen capture Twitter)
Mazen Faqha, upon his release after the Shalit deal in 2011. (Screen capture Twitter)

Faqha, a former prisoner in Israel who oversaw Hamas’s efforts to instigate terror attacks in the West Bank, was killed in his home in Tel el-Hawa, a neighborhood in southwestern Gaza City, on Friday. Hamas leaders have pointed to the stealthy and professional quality of the killing as evidence that it was carried out by members of an Israeli spy agency. Israel has not commented on Faqha’s death.

Faqha hailed from the northern West Bank town of Tubas, where he was arrested in 2002 for terrorism during the Second Intifada. He was serving multiple life terms for orchestrating a 2002 suicide bombing in which nine Israelis were killed. He was released in October 2011 in the prisoner swap for the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, and expelled to Gaza.

Avi Issacharoff contributed to this report.

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