Israel denies reported progress on prisoner swap with Hamas

Arabic news site says German mediator working to advance potential exchange that would include release of Palestinians rearrested after Shalit deal

Illustrative: Hamas members watch as a bus carrying Palestinian prisoners arrives at the Rafah crossing with Egypt in the southern Gaza Strip on October 18, 2011. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash 90)
Illustrative: Hamas members watch as a bus carrying Palestinian prisoners arrives at the Rafah crossing with Egypt in the southern Gaza Strip on October 18, 2011. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash 90)

Efforts by Egyptian and German mediators have led to substantial progress in indirect talks for a prisoner swap between Israel and the Hamas terrorist group, an Arabic news site reported Saturday, a report swiftly denied by a senior Israeli source.

Quoting unnamed Egyptian diplomatic sources, Khaleej Online said a German mediator has held secret talks in the Middle East in recent weeks to help advance a potential prisoner exchange.

The report said Israel consented to Hamas’s demand for the release of Palestinians who have been rearrested since they were freed in 2011 as part of a deal in which Israel exchanged 1,027 terrorists for IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, who was captured and held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip or five years.

The Egyptian officials said Israeli negotiators visited Egypt last week and were expected to travel to Cairo in the next two weeks for further talks on a prisoner swap, according to the report.

The news site named the German mediator as Ernst Orlau, an intelligence official who was involved in the Shalit deal and other exchange talks between Israel and regional terror groups.

Released Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit (second right), walks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (second left), then-defense minister Ehud Barak (left), and ex-chief of staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz (right), at the Tel Nof air base in southern Israel, October 18, 2011. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry/Flash90)

The sources quoted in the report linked the progress on a potential prisoner swap to efforts to reach a long-term ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.

“The coming days will be critical,” the report quoted the Egyptian officials saying.

The report was later denied by an Israeli diplomatic official.

Hamas is currently holding the remains of Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, Israel Defense Forces soldiers killed during the 2014 war between Israel and the Gaza-based terror group.

Hamas is also believed to be holding two Israeli civilians who entered Gaza of their own volition, Avraham Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed.

Left to right: Oron Shaul, Hadar Goldin and Avraham Mengistu. (Flash90/Times of Israel)

Numerous reports in recent years have said Israel and Hamas were advancing toward a prisoner exchange but a deal has yet to materialize.

The Khaleej Online report came as Egyptian and United Nations negotiators continue to push for a long-term agreement to end months of violence on the Gaza border and improve humanitarian conditions in the Palestinian enclave.

Since March, Palestinians have been holding the weekly “March of Return” protests on the border, which Israel has accused Gaza’s Hamas rulers of using to carry out attacks on troops and attempt to breach the security fence.

Though the “March of Return” protests have diminished somewhat in intensity in recent weeks as Egypt works to broker a ceasefire between Israel and the Gaza-ruling Hamas, the relative calm was shattered this past week after terror groups in the Strip launched over 460 rockets and mortars toward Israeli territory on Monday and Tuesday.

Israel struck over 160 sites connected to Hamas and the Iran-backed Islamic Jihad in response to the rocket fire, which came after a firefight during an Israeli operation in Gaza in which a special operations officer and seven Palestinian terrorists were killed.

Palestinians wave their national flags while others burn tires near the fence of Gaza Strip border with Israel during clashes east of Gaza City, on November 9, 2018. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

The fighting, which was the most serious since the 2014 Gaza war, came to an end on Tuesday after terror groups in Gaza announced a ceasefire.

The ceasefire, which Israel has been loathe to officially recognize, has been condemned by many Israelis and was cited by Avigdor Liberman in his decision to resign as defense minister on Wednesday.

The Hamas-led protests have seen thousands of acres of forest and farmland burned by incendiary devices carried by balloons and kites launched from the coastal enclave, as well as attacks on Israeli troops and attempts to breach the security fence.

The months-long violence has included a number of exchanges of fire between Israel and Gaza-based terror groups that have included rocket barrages from the Strip and retaliatory Israeli strikes, followed by ceasefires unilaterally declared by Hamas and other Palestinian factions.

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