A senior Hamas official reacted Sunday to reported progress in negotiations with Israel over a potential prisoner swap deal, saying the Palestinian terror group was willing to “sacrifice everything” to win the release of its members from Israeli prisons.
Husam Badran, the Gaza-based movement’s international spokesman and a member of its political bureau, said Hamas was aiming to make “a significant achievement” in the deal but wasn’t eager to discuss the details in the media.
“The further things are from the eye of the media, the more there are positive and practical results,” he said, according to Hebrew-language media reports.
Defense Minister Naftali Bennett was asked about the possibility of a prisoner swap during a press conference on Sunday, but refused to comment on any specific developments. “I oppose releasing murderers. Period,” Bennett said.
The possibility of a deal to return two Israeli captives — Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed — and the bodies of two IDF soldiers being held in the Gaza Strip has appeared to pick up momentum recently, with the government’s chief negotiator for the release of Israelis held by the terror group updating families last week regarding the prisoner swap talks.
The Wednesday meeting between Yaron Blum and the families of Sergeant First Class Oron Shaul and Lieutenant Hadar Goldin, both killed in action during the 2014 Gaza war, came after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier convened the ministerial committee responsible for returning Israeli captives to discuss efforts to reach a prisoner exchange with Hamas, Channel 13 reported.
“We are working toward a prisoner swap and we are willing to sacrifice everything to release our prisoners, who are our top priority,” Badran said Sunday, repeating recent Palestinian claims that the coronavirus was putting prisoners in danger.
While there have been fears of a potential COVID-19 outbreak in Israeli prisons, that hasn’t happened, and the infection rate in the country has continued to significantly slow down.
“I tell our prisoners to be confident that like we were committed in the past to freeing prisoners, so are we now,” said Badran, who lives in Qatar.
He also called for Palestinian unity to thwart the prospect of Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank, which is ruled by the rival Palestinian Authority. He said the West Bank was “in real danger” and that Hamas would do “everything to prevent that.”
Badran criticized some unnamed Arab countries for maintaining ties with Israel, saying that “normalization is a stab in the back of the Palestinian people and abandonment of tens of thousands of martyrs who sacrificed themselves.”
Hamas in recent weeks has expressed interest in reaching a deal that would see it return Mengistu and al-Sayed, who are believed to have entered Gaza of their own accord over five years ago, and the remains of Shaul and Goldin.
However, the terror group, which is the de facto ruler in the Strip and openly seeks Israel’s destruction, has said that in order for such a deal to take place, Israel must first release all teenage, female and elderly prisoners in addition to those who were rearrested after the 2011 Gilad Shalit prisoner swap deal, when more than 1,000 terror convicts were freed in exchange for a single IDF soldier.
In a statement last week, the Goldin family hinted at a deal coming together and said it was a chance that should not be passed up.
“There is [currently] an opportunity to return from the hands of Hamas our son Hadar and Sgt. Oron Shaul along with the civilians Mengistu and al-Sayed,” the family said. “Missing [this] opportunity now would be a national irresponsibility.”
Israeli officials last month reportedly quietly confirmed that “significant” talks were underway with Hamas.
Ismail Haniyeh, who leads the Gaza-based group, has said that he was optimistic there was a chance to reach a prisoner swap deal with Israel, and that the group was ready for indirect negotiations.
“We have four prisoners and we are ready for indirect talks,” Haniyeh said in a television interview with the Gaza-based al-Araby TV network last month. “I’m optimistic about the possibility of reaching an agreement with the occupation in order to complete a prisoner exchange deal and achieve our goals.”
The issue of the captives was reportedly delaying Israel’s okay for new investment money to be funneled into blockaded Gaza, and Hamas was growing desperate to lift part of the blockade amid the global coronavirus pandemic and economic downturn.
Some Israeli defense bodies are said to believe a prisoner swap would bring quiet to the often tense border for the immediate future.
Israel and Hamas have in the past failed to advance in the talks, in part because each has demanded a different timetable. Hamas has demanded two rounds of prisoner releases — the first in exchange for information on the captives, the second in exchange for the actual delivery to Israel of the captives and the soldiers’ bodies. Israel has refused, insisting that any deal must take place in a single exchange.
The coalition deal inked last month between Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz also opens a possible political window for a deal, as Gantz’s Blue and White faction would likely support an exchange even if some of Netanyahu’s right-wing allies do not.