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Hamas team reportedly in Cairo for prisoner swap talks

Palestinian source says discussions have come a long way; delegation arrives a week after Israelis said to have visited

Members of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of the Palestinian terror group Hamas, at a rally to mark Land Day near the Israeli border with east Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, March 30, 2017. (AFP/Said Khatib)
Members of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of the Palestinian terror group Hamas, at a rally to mark Land Day near the Israeli border with east Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, March 30, 2017. (AFP/Said Khatib)

A Hamas delegation led by the deputy commander of the group’s military wing, Marwan Issa, is reportedly in Cairo to hold talks on a possible prisoner exchange with Israel.

Countering Israeli denials, an unnamed Palestinian source told the London-based Arabic Al-Hiyat newspaper reported Monday that negotiations have “come a long way.”

Hamas, an Islamist terror group, is believed to be holding 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. Mengistu is an Israeli Jew of Ethiopian descent, while al-Sayed and Ghanima are Bedouins. All three Israeli civilians are all said to be mentally unstable.

Hamas 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 report, Hamas agreed that Egypt’s General Intelligence Service would be the exclusive mediator for a deal, and last week an Israeli delegation was also in Cairo to discuss the details. In charge of negotiations for Hamas is the head of the group’s military wing, Yahya Sinwar, and Ruhi Mushtaha, a member of the group’s diplomatic leadership.

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

Media reports over the weekend said that indirect discussions between Israel and Hamas were nearing a breakthrough, although officials from both sides later played down the progress made.

On Sunday Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman denied reports of a “breakthrough” in talks with Hamas.

“We don’t negotiate with terror organizations,” Liberman said, calling the Lebanese report “psychological warfare” by Hamas.

His denial came the day after the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar claimed Israel and Hamas were on the brink of an initial deal under which the Islamist Gaza rulers would provide information about the missing Israelis in return for the release of groups of prisoners.

While Israel says it does not speak directly with Hamas, indirect negotiations with the Islamist movement led to the 2011 deal that saw it release more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for soldier Gilad Shalit, who had been kidnapped by Hamas during a cross-border raid into Israel and then held captive for five years.

In recent weeks there have been more and more reports of progress, particularly following the return of Sinwar, Hamas’s leader in Gaza, from a visit to Egypt earlier last month.

Yahya Sinwar, the new leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, attends the opening of a new mosque in the southern Gaza city of Rafah on February 24, 2017. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Yahya Sinwar, the new leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, attends the opening of a new mosque in the southern Gaza city of Rafah on February 24, 2017. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

While in Egypt, Sinwar met with a number of officials, as well as former senior Fatah official Mohammad Dahlan, who was involved in the 2011 deal that led to the release of Shalit.

Following the Shalit deal, Israel commissioned a number of experts to set forth binding principles in negotiations on abducted soldiers which stipulated that lower numbers of prisoners could be released, and there should be no negotiations over remains.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett last week spoke out against releasing “live terrorists for the bodies of our soldiers,” calling instead to “increase the pressure and hurt Hamas so holding the bodies is no longer worth it.”

Agencies contributed to this report.

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