Israel freezes visits to Hamas prisoners amid talks over troops’ remains

Terror group says move, demanded by lawmakers and relatives to up pressure as talks stall, is tantamount to declaration of war

A member of the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas, stands next to mock jails during a rally marking Palestinian Prisoner Day in Gaza City on April 17, 2016. (AFP Photo/Mahmud Hams)
A member of the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas, stands next to mock jails during a rally marking Palestinian Prisoner Day in Gaza City on April 17, 2016. (AFP Photo/Mahmud Hams)

Hamas on Thursday said that Israel had stopped allowing Gazan members of the terror group serving time in Israeli prisons to receive visits from family members, in a move intended to ramp up pressure amid negotiations for the return of three Israeli civilians and the bodies of two soldiers being held in the Strip.

Hamas leaders condemned the move as “the beginning of a war against the prisoners.”

“We will not allow this decision to stand, whatever the price may be,” they said in a statement.

An Israeli prison official refused to confirm the policy change.

Israel is holding some 150 Hamas security prisoners from Gaza. In the past, families of Palestinian inmates have been granted permits to cross from the Gaza Strip into Israel to visit them.

The families of Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, two soldiers killed in Gaza during fighting in 2014, have urged Israel to disallow the visits as a means of pressuring Hamas to return the troops’ bodies and praised the reported move.

“We’ve been asking the government for two and a half years to apply pressure on Hamas in order to change the equation, to make them understand that holding IDF soldiers is a burden rather than an asset. Something is finally moving,” said Simcha Goldin, father of Hadar Goldin, according to the Ynet news site.

Hamas is thought to also be holding three Israelis who crossed into Gaza.

Talks over a possible swap have mostly stalled, and lawmakers recently joined calls to cut the visits.

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

Earlier this month Likud MK Yoav Kisch led 40 parliamentarians who put their names to a letter demanding the government end the family visits until the soldiers are returned, the Hebrew Walla website reported at the time.

The missive, signed by MKs from both the coalition and opposition, urged a policy of “a humanitarian step in exchange for a humanitarian step.”

The MKs asked the government to send a message to Hamas that the return of the soldiers is a precondition for future humanitarian steps.

“It is unreasonable for the Israeli government to decide on a series of humanitarian steps for Hamas in Gaza while it continues to hold our sons,” the wrote.

“We call on the government to adopt the policy and as a first stage stop the visits by families from the Gaza Strip to prisoners,” the lawmakers wrote.

On Tuesday, Channel 1 news reported that Israel and Hamas have been engaged in intensive indirect talks recently over the release of a number of Israeli nationals held captive by the terror group in Gaza.

In addition to returning the missing soldiers, Israel has been seeking to reach a deal with the rulers of the Gaza Strip to secure the release of 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.

The talks, which are being mediated by an unnamed third party, have gathered momentum over the past two weeks, following the return of Hamas’s leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, from a visit to Egypt earlier this month, the report said.

Hamas demands that Israel release all prisoners from the 2011 exchange for kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Shalit who were rearrested in 2014 when three Israeli teens were abducted in the West Bank (it later emerged that they had been killed almost immediately) before any advancement in negotiations between the parties can take place.

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