Israel moves to placate Hamas, but won’t meet pricey prisoner swap demands

Terror group, inspired by Shalit deal in 2011, seeking a similar exchange now, and transfers of Qatari money may not be enough to keep a lid on rising frustration in the Strip

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Palestinian members of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of the Hamas terrorist movement, during a patrol in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip on April 27, 2020. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Palestinian members of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of the Hamas terrorist movement, during a patrol in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip on April 27, 2020. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

The rocket attack from Gaza on Monday evening (there were no casualties), which came after more than a month of relative calm and no missile launches, can be attributed to an insubordinate organization in Gaza or to the delay in transferring Qatari funds to the Strip.

We have already grown accustomed to this ritual. Every time the financial aid Qatar provides for about 100,000 poor families in Gaza is delayed, someone — the Islamic Jihad Movement or one of its counterparts — attempts to accelerate the transfer of funds by using less conventional measures: one or two rockets, incendiary balloons, or in other words — escalation.

Nevertheless, it seems like this time, a new element has been added to the equation: Disappointment as Hamas’s hopes to seal a prisoner exchange deal with Israel have stalled, at least for the time being.

Only a few weeks ago, reports of significant progress in the negotiation on this matter started to appear in Arab and Israeli media. The reports spoke of an opportunity, created by the coronavirus outbreak, to achieve something that would satisfy both parties.

The Israel Prison Service feared a possible outbreak of the pandemic among Palestinian security prisoners, particularly senior ones, that would prompt violent protests in Israeli prisons and in the West Bank.

This concern sparked a creative idea in Israel — to release the old and sick prisoners, who are at high risk of falling ill, and send them back to Hamas in exchange for the two Israeli citizens held hostage in Gaza, as well as the bodies of two fallen Israel Defense Forces soldiers, Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin.

Top Hamas officials had already spoken publicly about this matter, describing their desire to cut a deal, and it seemed like Israel showed a willingness to reach an agreement as well. One of the strongest indications of this willingness in the Prime Minister’s Office was the fact that Hamas prisoners in Israel were offered an abundance of mysterious relief measures, while their Fatah counterparts received nothing, according to a Haaretz report.

Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorists take part in a symbolic funeral for the movement’s former leader Ramadan Shalah in Gaza City a day after his death in Lebanon, June 7, 2020. (Ail Ahmed/Flash90)

If we take into account the transfer of Qatari funds to Gaza, it’s hard to avoid the unbelievable conclusion that the Israeli government, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, has been working diligently to placate Hamas and preserve the calm, by overt bribery (the Qatari funds) and by relief measures for imprisoned members of the organization — benefits that Hamas’s rival, Fatah, has not been awarded.

Yet, it appears that the same prime minister refuses to provide Hamas with the greatest accomplishment to which it aspires at this stage: a prisoner exchange.

Netanyahu did just that in the past, when he approved the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange, thus giving Hamas its greatest achievement by exchanging 1,027 prisoners in exchange for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in 2011.

Thanks to that deal, Hamas is now not content with anything short of a massive prisoner release, creating a headache for Israel.

Hamas terrorist Nael Barghouti waves a green Islamic flag and a Palestinian flag to the crowd after arriving in the West Bank city of Ramallah after he was released as part of an exchange for Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier held by Hamas, October 18, 2011. (AP/Majdi Mohammed)

The fact that the organization is not holding a live soldier kidnapped during his service, as Shalit was, but rather two Israelis who entered Gaza of their own volition, Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, and the bodies of two soldiers killed in Operation Protective Edge, has not deterred Hamas from keeping its price just as high .

The demands the organization made during the recent negotiation sound far-fetched and impossible, well beyond the prisoners Israel has already agreed to release. The number of prisoners, and the identity of the specific members Hamas wants released, illustrate the fact that the Original Sin of the Shalit deal is here to stay.

Hamas’s rigid stance, which brought the indirect negotiations to a halt, is liable to create grounds for another round of escalation by itself — before issues like annexation, Qatari aid and the Strip’s collapsing economy are even mentioned.

‘An economic time bomb’

Gaza’s grim financial situation is being compounded by the coronavirus pandemic, choking its already constricted economy. The unemployment rate in Gaza stands at around 50 percent.

Despite the Strip’s Hamas-run government rolling back restrictions after seemingly avoiding the worst of the pathogen, a Gaza resident told me earlier this week that the pandemic is still taking a toll on people there.

“People have significantly less resources to provide for themselves. Look what happened in the past two weeks: Hamas’s government officials have received half of their salaries because of the organization’s budgetary distress. Palestinian Authority officials in Gaza have not received their salaries at all [the PA refused to accept taxes collected by Israel and has not been paying the salaries of its 30,000 employees],” he said.

Palestinian farmers collect wheat stalks during the annual harvest season at a field near the border between Israel and Gaza, east of Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, June 17, 2020. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

“Even the thousands of people who work for organizations affiliated with Mohammed Dahlan received only half of their salaries,” he said of Fatah’s Gazan strongman, a top rival of PA President Mahmoud Abbas. “Add the unemployment rates in Gaza to all that and you get a time bomb. People don’t have enough money to buy meat or chicken, so they buy vegetables. You can buy one kilogram of tomatoes, eggplants, or potatoes for one shekel, so we manage to make meals that will last for a few days and cost three shekels,” he said.

In the meantime, the multiple intermediaries between the two sides are trying to smooth things over. The special Qatari envoy, Mohammed al-Emadi, even gave an interview to the Gaza-based news agency SAWA, claiming that Israel is not responsible for the delay in the transfer of the funds.

Al-Emadi said that technical difficulties, partly related to the pandemic, had caused the delay, and that the money would be transferred in the next week or two. However, it’s doubtful that a hundred dollars for Gaza’s poor families is enough to keep Gaza calm and avoid an escalation in violence.

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