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International mediators said working on Hamas, Israel prisoner swap

Gaza source says release of prisoners rearrested after Shalit deal is a precondition to talks on Israelis believed held by Palestinian group

Dov Lieber is The Times of Israel's Arab affairs correspondent.

Agurnesh Mengistu, the mother of Avraham Mengistu, center, seen at a press conference at their home in Ashkelon, after a gag order was lifted over his disappearance in the Gaza Strip, on July 8, 2015. (Flash90)
Agurnesh Mengistu, the mother of Avraham Mengistu, center, seen at a press conference at their home in Ashkelon, after a gag order was lifted over his disappearance in the Gaza Strip, on July 8, 2015. (Flash90)

International mediators are interested in brokering a prisoner swap between Israel and Hamas, a source in the Gaza-based Islamist group reportedly said on Monday.

A source in Hamas told the London-based daily Asharq al-Awsat that though there are currently no direct negotiations between Hamas and Israel, foreign parties are examining the possibility of completing a prisoner exchange.

Hamas is thought to be holding two Israeli citizens, as well as the bodies of two Israeli soldiers killed in 2014.

Israel and Hamas do not officially maintain direct contacts, and any deal would have to be mediated by international parties. In 2011, kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was released in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian detainees, in a deal brokered with the help of a German diplomat.

Hamas has reportedly refused to even entertain the possibility of negotiating a swap until Israel releases all Palestinians rearrested after being freed in the 2011 deal for Shalit.

The Islamist group is also demanding the talks be held separately from all other issues, according to the report.

Gilad Shalit wears his army uniform on the day of his release from Gaza (photo credit: Ariel Hermoni/ Defense Ministry /Flash90)
Gilad Shalit at the Tel Nof air base in southern Israel on the day of his release from Gaza, October 18, 2011 (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry/Flash90)

Hamas is believed to be holding 29-year-old Avraham Mengistu, as well as a Bedouin-Israeli citizen whose name was not released for publication. The two Israelis reportedly crossed into the Gaza Strip on their own accord.

The remains of two soldiers killed in the 2014 Gaza war, Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, are also believed to be held by Hamas, which has not clarified their fate.

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

The captivity of the two men is viewed by Israel as a humanitarian issue unrelated to the negotiations over the bodies of the two deceased soldiers, an official told Walla news last July.

While a senior Palestinian official based in the Gaza Strip denied that the group was holding Mengistu, Hamas political leader Khaled Mashaal last year alluded to Mengistu and the second man when discussing Israelis held by his organization.

Speaking with the London-based Arabic language al-Araby al-Jadeed newspaper last July, Mashaal claimed Israel had requested European officials to mediate negotiations with Hamas over the release of the captured individuals.

Avraham Mengistu, 28, who Israel believes is being held captive by Hamas. (Facebook)
Avraham Mengistu, 28, who Israel believes is being held captive by Hamas. (Facebook)

“We won’t let Israeli prisoners go before the release of Palestinian prisoners,” Mashaal told the outlet.

At a rally in Gaza last July, Hamas displayed a huge model fist holding a mock-up of Shaul’s ID card and two other IDF dog tags with question marks on them, implying that it holds two Israelis captive.

Mengistu, who suffered from unspecified mental issues, was rejected for IDF service.

A model fist holds 3 mock Israeli army dog tags at a Hamas rally in Gaza, July 8, 2015 (YouTube screenshot)
A model fist holds 3 mock Israeli army dog tags at a Hamas rally in Gaza, July 8, 2015. (YouTube screenshot)

Little is known of the whereabouts of Mengistu, who climbed over the Gaza security fence in September last year. Family members have described him as “unwell” and urged Hamas to consider his condition and return him to Israel immediately.

Mengistu’s brother, Gashao, traveled to Geneva in February to plead his family’s case before European officials.

The brother of Avraham Mengistu speaks with the media at their home in Ashkelon, after a gag order was been lifted over Mengistu's disappearance in the Gaza Strip, on July 8, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
The brother of Avraham Mengistu speaks with the media at their home in Ashkelon, after a gag order was lifted over Mengistu’s disappearance in the Gaza Strip, on July 8, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“When Hamas is asking for humanitarian assistance, and contributions to the people in Gaza, then the international community should tell them: Don’t expect us to assist you when you are violating the same rights of the other side,” Gashao said.

The second hostage, an Israeli from the Bedouin village of Hura, reportedly entered Gaza via the Erez Crossing in April.

According to an Israeli official, the man has mild psychological issues and has a history of entering Jordan, Egypt and Gaza.

Times of Israel Staff and agencies contributed to this report

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