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Israel: No prisoner swap for Gaza-held Israelis

Jerusalem expects Hamas to free 2 captives on humanitarian grounds, officials say; hostages won’t be included in deal for return of soldiers’ bodies

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)

Israel is determined not to release Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the return of the two Israeli citizens being held captive by Hamas in the Gaza Strip, security officials told Haaretz Thursday. The officials maintained that the government will not include the hostages in any agreement for the return of the bodies of IDF soldiers Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, who were both killed during last year’s 50-day war between Israel and the Palestinian terrorist group.

According to the officials, who spoke under condition of anonymity, the Israeli government expects Hamas to release 28-year-old Avraham Mengistu, as well as a Bedouin-Israeli citizen whose name was not released for publication, as the two apparently crossed into Gaza on their own accord due to personal problems. The captivity of the two men is viewed by Israel as a humanitarian issue unrelated to the negotiations over the bodies of the two deceased soldiers, which have been held by Hamas since last summer’s fighting, an official also told Walla news.

Other officials in Israel had stated earlier Thursday that they were attempting to start talks with Hamas over the two Israeli citizens’ release. According to one of those sources, Hamas is denying that it holds Mengistu and has so far refused to negotiate.

Hamas has previously used captives as leverage to press the Israeli government to release Palestinian security prisoners. In 2011, Israel released 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, in four waves, in return for the release of kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Shalit.

Avraham Mengistu (Courtesy)
Avraham Mengistu (Courtesy)

A gag order concerning the two hostages was lifted early Thursday, following a court petition by two Israeli media outlets.

While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other senior Israeli officials made it clear that they held Hamas ultimately responsible for the welfare and safety of the two missing Israelis, a senior Palestinian official based in the Gaza Strip denied that the group was holding Mengistu. According to the official, Mengistu was briefly held by the group but was released a short while later after Hamas interrogators determined he was not a soldier. The official further claimed that the Israeli citizen left the coastal strip via a tunnel to Sinai, apparently in an attempt to reach Ethiopia.

On Wednesday, however, exiled Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal alluded to Mengistu and the second man when discussing Israelis held by his organization. Speaking with the Arabic language al-Araby al-Jadeed newspaper, Mashaal claimed Israel had requested of European officials that they mediate in negotiations with Hamas over the release of the captured individuals.

Hamas political chief Khaled Mashaal in Doha, Qatar, August 2014 (screen capture: Yahoo News)
Hamas political chief Khaled Mashaal (screen capture: Yahoo News)

“We won’t let Israeli prisoners go before the release of Palestinian prisoners,” Mashaal told the outlet.

Mashaal’s comments followed several hints from Hamas that it was holding Mengistu and another live Israeli captive, in addition to the bodies of Goldin and Shaul. Israeli officials have confirmed in the past that the Gaza-based group holds the remains of the two IDF soldiers.

At a rally in Gaza on Wednesday, Hamas displayed a huge model fist holding a mock up of Shaul’s ID card and two other IDF IDs with question marks on them, implying that it holds two Israeli soldiers captive. Mengistu, who suffered from unspecified mental issues, was rejected for IDF service.

A model fist holds 3 mock Israeli army dog tags at a Hamas rally in Gaza, July 8, 2015 (YouTube screenshot)
A model fist holds 3 mock Israeli army dog tags at a Hamas rally in Gaza, July 8, 2015 (YouTube screenshot)

Little is known of the whereabouts of Mengistu, who climbed over the Gaza security fence in September last year. Family members have described Mengistu as “unwell” and urged Hamas to consider his condition and return him to Israel immediately.

The second hostage, an Israeli from the Bedouin village of Hura, reportedly entered Gaza via the Erez Crossing in April. According to an Israeli official, the man has mild psychological issues and has a history of entering Jordan, Egypt and Gaza.

An unmanned IDF ground vehicle near the southern part of the Gaza-Israel border fence (Zev Marmorstein/IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
An unmanned IDF ground vehicle near the southern part of the Gaza-Israel border fence (Zev Marmorstein/IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

On Thursday, Gershon Baskin, an Israeli negotiator involved in the talks, backed up claims that despite repeated attempts by Israel to engage with Hamas diplomatically, the Gaza-based group continues to deny it is holding Mengistu, leaving negotiations in a deadlock.

“They wanted to return him back to Israel; he refused to be sent back,” Baskin said, quoting Hamas, adding that spokesmen for the terror group said that “he was briefly detained, but let go when it became clear he had mental issues.”

“According to Hamas, they’re not holding him and this has been checked by the government, the Hamas police and the al-Qassam Brigade,” said Baskin, who said he had been involved in talks with Mashaal for months to secure Mengistu’s release.

Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin said Thursday morning that Israel is certain that both Israelis are in Gaza, and urged their immediate release on basic humanitarian grounds.

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