The Hamas terror group has relayed a proposal for a prisoner exchange with Israel, with Egypt as a mediator, a Lebanese newspaper reported Thursday.
A copy of the proposal by Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip, was given to Egyptian intelligence, Al-Akhbar reported, according to the Kan public broadcaster.
Egypt has been in touch with both Israel and Hamas and put forward a proposal similar to the Palestinian terror organization’s, the report said.
The reported proposal would be modeled on a 2009 agreement that saw Israel release 20 female prisoners in exchange for video footage of Gilad Shalit, an IDF soldier who was held in Gaza after being captured by Hamas during a cross-border attack in 2006. Shalit was released in 2011 as part of a prisoner exchange in which Israel freed over 1,000 security prisoners, among them Sinwar.
According to Al-Akhbar, the proposal would have Israel release an unspecified number of women, children and elderly Palestinians being held in prison for information on IDF soldiers Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, whose remains have been held by Hamas since they were killed in the 2014 Gaza war.
There was no mention in the report of Israeli citizens Avera Avraham Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, who are believed to held by Hamas after having entered Gaza of their own accord in 2014-2015.
On Wednesday, a senior Hamas official said the terror group was willing to enter talks “tomorrow” to return al-Sayed and Mengistu, as well as the bodies of Shaul and Goldin.
Musa Dudin, a member of the Hamas political bureau, speaking on a Hamas-affiliated TV channel, said Israel had a “window of opportunity” that it can take advantage of before it will once again be forced to “negotiate under more difficult conditions,” apparently referring to the willingness to make a humanitarian gesture during the coronavirus crisis.
Dudin said “Israel knows what the demands are and that they should not be discussed in the media.”
His remarks come after Palestinian media said Hamas was holding internal deliberations on whether to enter talks with Israel and that the Egyptian military had offered to mediate between Israel and Hamas.
Without specifying, Dudin called on “mediators to be fair and not biased in favor of Israel.”
In a Tuesday message to Hamas, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel is prepared to take “constructive action” to bring back Israelis and soldiers’ remains held in Gaza.
Israel’s chief negotiator for the release of Gaza captives, Yaron Blum, in collaboration with the National Security Council and the defense establishment, is “committed to acting constructively with the aim of bringing back the soldiers’ bodies and missing civilians and putting an end to the issue,” Netanyahu’s office said in a statement, adding that the premier was calling “for immediate dialogue between mediators” to facilitate a deal.
However, Dudin dismissed Netanyahu’s statement as “propaganda,” saying he had not taken any concrete action.
Hamas on Tuesday issued a statement responding to Netanyahu, saying, “The ball was now in [Israel’s] court to take practical steps” toward a deal and that it would “reply responsibly to any real response” from Israel.
The statement from Netanyahu’s office appeared to be in response to an interview Sinwar gave last Thursday in which he revealed the terror group’s willingness to reach a deal.
Addressing the ongoing humanitarian crisis due to the coronavirus, Sinwar told al-Aqsa TV, “I want to take advantage of this opportunity. We have a possibility… There is an initiative to set this file in motion.”
“The occupation [could agree to] more of a humanitarian measure than a ‘swap’ measure,” he continued. “It releases the ill inmates, the elderly, the female prisoners. There is a large number. We might be able to provide something partial in return regarding this issue.”
He suggested that such a swap might be possible amid the coronavirus crisis but insinuated that Hamas would not release all the Israelis it is holding because that would be part of a larger swap and they have a “high cost.”
While he did not specify what exactly the terror group would give in return, his emphasis on a “humanitarian measure” has led some analysts to believe he might be referring to his willingness to release the two captive civilians, Mengistu and al-Sayed.
In the past, Hamas negotiators have refused to consider any deal to return the soldiers’ bodies and civilians that does not include Israel’s release of security prisoners who were freed in the Shalit deal before being rearrested over further violations.
In November, Blum, the Israeli negotiator, said that Hamas was refusing to adopt a stance that would allow for real progress in talks for a possible prisoner swap.
A deal over the Israeli captives and remains is believed to be one of several issues holding up a long-term ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas following long months of tensions and flareups.