Hamas will not accept an Israeli proposal to set up a seaport in Cyprus to serve the Gaza Strip unless Jerusalem concedes to its demands for the release of dozens of its members held since 2014, Hadashot television news reported Tuesday.
The seaport plan said to be under consideration in Israel is aimed at improving the humanitarian situation in the Palestinian enclave, which faces a lack of electricity, potable water, and food. It would reportedly depend on Hamas returning to Israel two of its citizens and the remains of two IDF soldiers it holds.
But according to Hadashot, senior Hamas officials say a precondition for talks on a deal of any kind is the release of over 50 of its jailed members — freed in a 2011 prisoner exchange and then rearrested in the wake of the 2014 kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens by a Hamas cell in the West Bank.
Only upon those prisoners’ release will the group agree to negotiations over the Israelis it holds — and will likely demand the freedom of further prisoners to return them.
Channel 10 television reported Tuesday that Israel has sent messages via international intermediaries telling Hamas it is prepared to close a quick deal for the return of the civilians and soldiers held by the terror group, but that it will not accept any preconditions.
Hadashot said Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas opposes the seaport plan too. demanding Gaza’s plight be addressed as part of a wider diplomatic solution to the conflict.
Meanwhile Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar reported Tuesday that Egyptian officials will meet with Hamas representatives in Cairo in the coming days to discuss plans to improve the humanitarian and economic situation in Gaza.
The proposals include construction of a new trade zone between Gaza and Egypt, improved movement through the Rafah Crossing and Palestinian use of the El Arish Airport in northern Sinai.
Hadashot news first reported on the seaport proposal Monday, when it said Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman had raised the idea over the weekend when he visited Cyprus for a regional summit.
Israel reportedly plans to pitch the plan directly to the public in Gaza, bypassing Hamas as a way to pressure the terror group, which would be hard-pressed to explain to the international community and its subjects why it was not accepting the proposal.
On Tuesday Cyprus said it was examining the idea but that nothing had yet been agreed.
Two apparently mentally ill Israeli civilians — Abera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed — who entered Gaza of their own volition in 2014 and 2015, respectively, are currently being held Hamas, along with the remains of two IDF soldiers: Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul.
Hamas is keeping the Israelis as bargaining chips for a prisoner exchange in which it would seek to secure the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli prisons and an end to the blockade of Gaza.
Israel, along with Egypt, imposed a blockade of Gaza after Hamas seized control of the territory in 2007. Israel says the blockade is necessary to prevent Hamas from smuggling weapons into Gaza. Goods are currently shipped to Israeli ports and then trucked into Gaza after screening by Israeli authorities.
In 2011 Israeli released over 1,000 Palestinian security prisoners in exchange for IDF soldier Gilad Shalit who was kidnapped by Hamas in a 2006 cross-border raid and held in captivity in Gaza.
After the abduction of the three Israeli teenagers in June 2014, Israel launched a wide-scale military operation to find them during which it arrested over 300 members of Hamas in the West Bank. The bodies of Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar, Naftali Fraenkel were found at the end of the month. As tensions rose, Hamas began firing rockets at Israeli towns near the Gaza border in an escalation that culminated with the 2014 conflict between the IDF and Hamas-led terror groups in the Gaza Strip, dubbed Operation Protective Edge. During the fighting Goldin and Shaul were killed and their remains captured by Hamas.