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Israel-Hamas talks on prisoner swap delayed by political uncertainty – report

Defense official tells news site the Egyptian-mediated negotiations have not stopped, but have slowed down amid potential change of government in Jerusalem

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)

Indirect negotiations between Israel and Hamas for a prisoner exchange are being delayed by the political uncertainty in the Jewish state, an unnamed defense official told Walla news Friday.

Hamas holds two Israeli civilians captive — Hisham al-Sayed and Avera Mengistu — as well as the bodies of two Israeli soldiers, Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul.

The official told the news website that Egyptian-mediated talks “haven’t stopped,” but that the potential change of government was causing them to lag.

The defense source added that Israel continues to insist it will not release any convicted killers of Israelis in return for the prisoners. He said Egypt is understanding of the Israeli position tying the rehabilitation of the Gaza Strip following last month’s conflict with the return of the captured Israelis.

On Monday Hamas’s Gaza leader Yahya Sinwar said Hamas is ready for “immediate negotiations” to reach a prisoner exchange.

Yahya Sinwar, leader of the Hamas terror group in Gaza, poses for a ‘selfie’ with supporters as he tours the Al-Rimal neighborhood in Gaza City, on May 26, 2021, to assess the damaged caused during the recent fighting against Israel. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

Sinwar made his comment following a meeting with Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel. The Egyptian top spy visited the coastal enclave after a series of meetings in Tel Aviv and Ramallah with senior Israeli and Palestinian officials.

Israel and Hamas concluded 11 days of fighting earlier this month during which the terror group launched thousands of rockets at Israeli cities and towns, and Israel launched hundreds of airstrikes in the Gaza Strip.

The last major prisoner exchange between Israel and Hamas was in 2011. In a controversial move, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu authorized the release of 1,027 Palestinian security prisoners in exchange for captive soldier Gilad Shalit.

One of the prisoners released in the exchange was Sinwar, who had been sentenced to life in Israeli jail for murder. He played a key role in the Shalit negotiations, with one of the Israeli negotiators later saying: “At [Sinwar’s] will, there would be a deal, and at his will, there would be no deal.”

It is unclear how many prisoners Hamas will demand in exchange for the two living Israelis and the two bodies. After Sinwar’s meeting with Kamel, the Hamas leader told reporters cryptically to “write down the number 1,111.”

“You will recall it well [in the future],” Sinwar said.

Palestinians look at the rubble of a building that collapsed after it was hit by airstrikes during an 11-day war between Gaza’s Hamas rulers and Israel, in Gaza City, Tuesday, June 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

Hamas has consistently said it rejects linking rebuilding Gaza after the recent hostilities to a deal with Israel on the captives.

“We will not accept the prisoner file being tied to the reconstruction, or the siege, or Palestinian rights. Our brothers in Egypt understand this,” senior Hamas official Khalil al-Hayya, who serves as Sinwar’s deputy in the Gaza Strip, said Monday.

Al-Hayya accused Israel of “holding up” a possible ceasefire deal by not agreeing to the terror group’s conditions.

“The Israeli occupation is not serious at this point. If they were serious, they could have moved forward. We’re not the ones holding up [the issue],” al-Hayya claimed.

Palestinians sit inside a makeshift tent built amid the rubble of their home, destroyed by an airstrike in Beit Lahia, northern Gaza Strip, Friday, June 4, 2021. A truce that ended an 11-day war between Gaza’s Hamas rulers and Israel has so far held but it did not address any of the deeper issues plaguing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

While an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire halted the fighting between Israel and Hamas, the truce remains tenuous. None of the underlying issues Hamas used as its rationale for attacking Israel have been resolved.

Egypt has reportedly invited Israel, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority to talks in Cairo on a long-term ceasefire. Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi visited the Egyptian capital on Sunday.

Aaron Boxerman contributed to this report.

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