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Israel, Hamas fail to make progress in Cairo on prisoner swap deal

Terror group said insisting on release of convicted murderers; Jerusalem conditions Gaza reconstruction on release of IDF soldiers’ bodies, 2 civilian captives

Clockwise from top left: Oron Shaul, Avera Mengistu, Hadar Goldin and Hisham al-Sayed. (Flash 90/Courtesy)
Clockwise from top left: Oron Shaul, Avera Mengistu, Hadar Goldin and Hisham al-Sayed. (Flash 90/Courtesy)

An Israeli delegation has returned from Cairo without making progress on a deal with Hamas that would allow for the return of two Israeli civilians and the remains of two IDF soldiers being held in Gaza, according to Hebrew media reports on Wednesday.

According to the Kan public broadcaster, the head of Israel’s delegation has made it clear that Israel and the terror group will not reach any agreement on Gaza without the return of those being held there.

Kan said the Hamas demands in Cairo in the context of a prisoner swap were dramatic and unrealistic, but that the Israeli delegation was still hopeful that Egypt can exert enough pressure on Hamas to allow an agreement to be reached.

The Israeli officials were surprised to learn that Hamas negotiators were in adjacent rooms in the same building for the indirect talks, mediated by Egypt, the Walla news site reported on Wednesday.

The negotiations stalled after Hamas insisted Israel release Palestinian prisoners who have been convicted over the murders of Israelis, the report said, adding that the high-level security cabinet will convene in the coming weeks to decide whether to compromise on releasing such inmates.

Hamas has so far insisted on separating prisoner negotiations from any discussions related to a potential long-term truce or the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip, while Israel had linked the prisoner swap to any further negotiations.

Two Israeli civilians and the bodies of two Israel Defense Forces soldiers are currently being held in Gaza. Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed entered the Strip of their own accord, and their families say they suffer from mental illness. Hamas is also holding the bodies of Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, two IDF soldiers who were killed in the Strip during the 2014 Gaza war.

US President Joe Biden’s administration opposes Israel’s desire to condition post-war reconstruction projects in Gaza on the return of the bodies of the fallen IDF soldiers held by Hamas, two Western diplomats told The Times of Israel on Monday. However, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is intent on combining the two issues, an Israeli official said.

Israel last week eased some restrictions on the flow of goods to and from Gaza, as well as reopening the Strip’s fishing zone, following several days of quiet along the border. Israel had significantly limited the entrance of goods into the enclave following May’s 11-day conflict.

Yahya Sinwar, leader of the Palestinian Hamas movement, gestures during a rally in Beit Lahiya on May 30, 2021. Photo by Atia Mohammed/Flash90

But Defense Minister Benny Gantz reiterated this week that Israel would not allow large-scale reconstruction of Gaza unless Hamas returns the captives and the bodies of the IDF soldiers.

“Operation Guardian of the Walls ended, but it hasn’t finished,” Gantz said during a speech at a graduation ceremony for Israeli Air Force pilots on Thursday, using Israel’s name for the recent fighting in the Strip.

“The Hamas terror group in Gaza needs to understand: We are determined. If Hamas wants reconstruction and economic development, the time has come that it takes concrete steps to maintain the calm, to halt the rearmament and to return the boys home,” he said.

The remarks came a day after Gantz met with the UN’s Middle East peace envoy Tor Wennesland, underscoring “the need to maintain calm and to work to return the captives and missing Israelis in the Gaza Strip,” according to a statement from the defense minister’s office.

Wennesland met Monday with Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas leader in the Strip, who said their talks to strengthen the ceasefire between Israel and the Gaza-ruling terror group, which openly seeks the Jewish state’s destruction, went poorly.

“It was a bad meeting. It was not positive at all,” Sinwar told reporters following the meeting. “It seems that the occupation did not get our people’s message,” he added, referring to Israel.

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