A senior Hamas official said Friday there could be no new exchange talks with Israel until it frees dozens of prisoners it has rearrested since their release in a 2011 swap.
Ismail Haniyeh, a former Palestinian prime minister, said Israel had re-arrested at least 54 of the more than 1,000 prisoners freed in exchange for soldier Gilad Shalit, who was captured in a cross-border raid by Gaza militants in 2006.
“We have told all the mediators who have mobilized to discuss a new exchange that there won’t be any negotiations before the release of all those Israel detained from among the Shalit deal group,” Haniyeh said in a speech marking the Eid al-Fitr holiday. “There will be no talks without their unconditional release.”
Haniyeh did not elaborate on what new exchange was being mooted.
He said Hamas would continue to fight for the release of Palestinian prisoners. “God willing, your freedom is near,” he stated.
Israel insists that all of those rearrested since the Shalit exchange were implicated in fresh security offences committed after their release.
Hamas has long acknowledged holding body parts of two Israeli soldiers killed during last summer’s conflict in Gaza, Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin.
It is also believed to be holding two civilians who Israel says crossed into Gaza: Avraham Mengistu, an Israeli of Ethiopian descent who Israel says has been held by Hamas since crossing illegally into the Strip last September; and an Israeli Arab who Israel says is also being held, although it has given no details of his case.
Palestinian sources have said that Hamas and Israel are engaged in under-the-radar talks over the return of the two civilians and the soldiers’ remains.
Haaretz reported Friday that Palestinian prisoners were informed in recent weeks that their release may be approaching as part of a prisoner swap with Israel. However, according to the report, expectations have since been tempered as talks have stalled.
Hamas deputy political chief Moussa Abu Marzouk declared Thursday that Mengistu was not a civilian at all and had entered Gaza wearing an Israeli military uniform. He also claimed in an interview to Al-Jazeera quoted by Haaretz that Mengistu entered the Palestinian enclave during the war between Hamas and Israel in July-August, and not in September as Israel says.
“They told us this Mengistu had entered…in the northern Gaza Strip and asked us to return him as he was mentally unstable,” Abu Marzouk said. “Well I say, how can one believe that a crazy man in military uniform can traverse 40 kilometers and run away from the Beersheba area in order to enter the Gaza Strip from the northern sector?”
Abu Marzouk further asserted that Israel was only calling Mengistu mentally handicapped due to the color of his skin.
“If he was white-skinned and blue-eyed Israel would treat this differently, but this is a black, Ethiopian man and so he is neglected, overlooked and given the label of ‘madman.'”
Hamas sources have said Mengistu is in Hamas captivity but is nevertheless safe and sound. The organization’s new stance on Mengistu contrasts with its previous version, according to which the Israeli man had crossed into Egypt via a tunnel. Hamas officials, however, refused to comment on the matter during a conversation with The Times of Israel.
Meanwhile, Hamas has been sending messages to Israel regarding its desire to reach an agreement on a long-term truce in Gaza. The messages are being relayed through various international mediators, including former British prime minister and Middle East Quartet envoy Tony Blair, who has made several visits to Doha, the capital of Qatar, where he met with the head of Hamas’s political bureau, Khaled Mashaal.
Palestinian and Israeli sources told The Times of Israel that the two men met at least three times, both while Blair still held the position of Quartet envoy and after his official retirement in late June. Among the issues raised by Mashaal during those meetings were the two Israelis in Gaza, the return of the remains of Shaul and Goldin, the lifting of the blockade over the Strip, and the construction of a seaport and airport in the Hamas-controlled territory.