Hamas refuses to swap Israeli civilian for imprisoned operative — report

Official says Palestinian terror group will only negotiate for a single, all-encompassing exchange

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Avraham Abera Mengistu, undated. (Courtesy of the Mengistu family via AP)
Avraham Abera Mengistu, undated. (Courtesy of the Mengistu family via AP)

The Palestinian Hamas terror group reportedly rejected an Israeli offer for a prisoner exchange, under which Israel would release a mentally ill Hamas member it is holding in return for an Israeli civilian imprisoned in the Gaza Strip who is also said to have psychological issues.

A Hamas official responded to the offer by saying the organization is not interested in small-scale deals and will only negotiate for a single, all-encompassing prisoner exchange, Israel Radio reported on Sunday.

Hamas is believed to be detaining Avraham Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, two Israeli men who crossed into Gaza of their own accord, as well as a third Israeli man, Juma Ibrahim Abu Ghanima, whose presence in Gaza is unconfirmed. The Islamist terror group 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.

According to the radio report, Israel, through a mediator, offered to release Hamas member Bilal Razaineh in return for either Mengistu or Sayed in what was described as a “humanitarian” exchange, due to the mental status of the prisoners involved.

It was the latest in a series of reports that mediators — Egypt or Qatar, or both — are involved in negotiating a prisoner exchange between Hamas and Israel. Hamas officials have in the past periodically confirmed and denied the reports.

IDF soldiers Oron Shaul (left) and Hadar Goldin (right) (Flash90)
IDF soldiers Oron Shaul (left) and Hadar Goldin (right) (Flash90)

The families of the missing Israeli civilians told Israel Radio that they first heard of the alleged deal from local media on Sunday. Mengistu’s brother Ilan said that while the report of a possible exchange was welcome news he still has a lot of criticism over how the state has handled the matter and claimed Israel is not doing enough to help bring his brother home. Mengistu urged Israeli officials to raise international awareness of the prisoners’ plight and to highlight that while his brother has been denied even basic rights, Hamas captives are given those rights and more while held in Israeli prisons.

Razaineh, 24, was interrogated by Israel’s internal security agency after he was caught attempting to enter Israeli territory on November 27. He was reportedly a member of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s armed wing, for nearly a decade, and his interrogation yielded information about the terror group’s tunnel-digging operations beneath the Gaza Strip. His brother, Mustafa Razaineh, is a high-ranking member of the Brigades. As head of Mustafa’s security, Bilal Razaineh had access to a high level of security. Both are considered high-ranking operatives.

Hamas has long demanded Israel first release hundreds of Palestinians who were rearrested after they were freed in the 2011 prisoner swap for captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, before it would even enter into negotiations with Israel over a prisoner exchange.

A Hamas source told Israel Radio that Egypt is not willing to be a mediator between Israel and Hamas and that there is no progress toward reaching a prisoner swap.

Over the past two weeks two senior Hamas delegations, including one led by top official Ismail Haniyeh, and another led by Marwan Issa, a senior figure from Hamas’s military wing, visited Cairo for talks with Egyptian intelligence officials.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh is greeted by supporters upon his return to Gaza City on January 27, 2017. (AFP/Mohammed Abed)
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh is greeted by supporters upon his return to Gaza City on January 27, 2017. (AFP/Mohammed Abed)

After Haniyeh’s meetings, the Rafah crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip reopened Saturday for three days, for the first time this year.

According to the Hamas source, the missing Israelis were not discussed at all, but Hamas would be happy if Egypt offered to become involved, the radio report said. The talks did discuss men wanted by Egypt for being involved in Islamic State attacks in the Sinai Peninsula and who are now believed to be hiding out in Gaza.

The denials came over the weekend after Arabic media outlets reported the Hamas delegations had in fact discussed the missing Israelis and that Hamas was interested in renewing indirect negotiations via Egypt. A reported prisoner deal would see the release of the bodies of Goldin and Shaul, as well as Mengistu and Anima in return for the release of Hamas members held by Israel.

On Saturday Israel Radio cited an Al-Araby Al-Jadeed newspaper report that senior Egyptian intelligence officials pressed Hamas to restart its negotiations with Israel for the release of the two Israeli civilians and the soldiers’ remains.

Times of Israel staff and AP contributed to this report.

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