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Israel offered to release murderers in talks on Hamas prisoner swap – report

Senior official in terror group tells Lebanese paper Jerusalem was prepared to release ‘hundreds of Palestinians’ in exchange for captive civilians, soldiers’ remains held in Gaza

Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar (4th L) takes part in a rally as Palestinians call for a 'Day of Rage' to protest Israel's plan to annex parts of the West Bank, in Gaza City on July 1, 2020 (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)
Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar (4th L) takes part in a rally as Palestinians call for a 'Day of Rage' to protest Israel's plan to annex parts of the West Bank, in Gaza City on July 1, 2020 (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

Israel offered to release Palestinians who killed Israelis in acts of terror in an effort to reach a prisoner exchange deal with Hamas, a senior official in the Hamas terror group told the Lebanese the daily Al-Akhbar on Monday.

Al-Akhbar, a Lebanese daily newspaper, is widely considered a mouthpiece for the terror group Hezbollah. The tabloid has become a favorite method for Hamas officials to spread messages to the press outside of their official media.

The report quoted a senior official in the terror group as saying Israel had offered to release “hundreds of Palestinians, in exchange for their soldiers, including prisoners who had caused the deaths of Israelis.”

Though Israeli officials have acknowledged that talks are ongoing for the release of Israeli captives held by Hamas, they have refrained from discussing the specific proposals and offers being made in the negotiations.

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

Hamas is currently believed to hold two Israeli civilians, Avera Avraham Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, who entered Gaza of their own accord in 2014-2015, and the remains of two Israeli soldiers, Sergeant First Class Oron Shaul and Lieutenant Hadar Goldin, killed in action during the 2014 Gaza war.

Since their capture Israel has worked to secure their releases, often using the Egyptian military, which maintains ties to both Jerusalem and Hamas, as an intermediary. An Egyptian intelligence delegation visited the Gaza Strip last week before leaving through the Erez checkpoint with Israel.

Hamas, for its part, seeks the release of Palestinian security prisoners in Israeli jails — both members of Hamas and of other terror groups. Some of the prisoners had already been freed during a controversial 2011 prisoner exchange deal for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, but were re-arrested during a 2014 crackdown on the terror group in the West Bank following the abduction and murder of three Israeli teenagers.

The efforts have so far failed to yield results. Israeli defense officials described the current round of talks to The Times of Israel as being the most significant and serious to date, in light of mounting pressure on Hamas from Gaza’s rapidly deteriorating coronavirus outbreak. Yet those defense officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, indicated do not expect a breakthrough.

Ostensible details of the latest attempt to reach a deal were reported by Hebrew media. Unnamed Israeli officials said that Israel will not allow murderers to be released, but that a deal is expected to include various humanitarian gestures toward Gaza, including medical aid to help deal with coronavirus in the territory.

According to Al-Akhbar, the senior Hamas official who spoke to the paper said that the organization “rejects the attempt to tie the prisoner issue with the humanitarian situation in Gaza.”

“The price of solving this issue is well-known: the release of thousands of Palestinian prisoners. Additionally, there will be no dealing with any proposals outside of this framework,” the senior Hamas official reportedly said.

Derech Eretz MK Zvi Hauser, who heads the Knesset’s powerful Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, tweeted on Monday that he had been “privy to all the details” of the emerging deal, which he called “outrageous” and argued would bring hundreds of terrorists “back into circulation.”

MK Zvi Hauser at a Knesset committee meeting on May 20, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Hauser said such a deal would “violate the principles of the Shamgar report,” referring to a largely classified report produced by a 2012 commission led by former Supreme Court chief justice Meir Shamgar on Israel’s policies regarding prisoner exchanges.

“I call on the prime minister to withdraw from this dangerous move and learn the lessons of the Shalit deal, the majority of whose freed prisoners returned to terror,” Hauser said.

Hamas spokesperson Hazem Qassem, meanwhile, publicly denied any movement on the issue between the two sides, saying that it was an attempt by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to enhance his popularity as the country seems poised to head to a fourth round of elections in two years.

“This is a ploy by Netanyahu to enhance his personal stature in any expected Zionist elections. This Zionist media talk has no basis in truth,” Qassem said.

“Netanyahu is still evading a decision in this issue, and is toying with the feelings of the families of the captured soldiers,” he said.

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