Israel has reportedly sent the Hamas terror group in Gaza an offer of increased assistance in dealing with the COVID pandemic in exchange for the release of Israeli captives.
Israel’s Channel 13 and Ynet news site both cited Israeli officials saying that Jerusalem has identified an opportunity to push ahead with a deal due to the virus crisis in the Hamas-ruled Strip.
Gaza has in recent days seen a surge in virus cases and deaths.
Ynet, quoting Palestinian sources, said that Israel had sent the offer to Hamas via the Egyptians.
Israel said it was prepared to assist Gaza’s health crisis, but would not be willing to release prisoners with blood on their hands in exchange for two Israeli civilians, Avera Avraham Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, who are believed to held by Hamas after entering 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.
The message conveyed said Israel was serious and willing to press ahead quickly in reaching a deal.
Similar reports about a window of opportunity surfaced in April, but nothing developed, largely because each side has demanded a different timetable. Hamas has demanded two rounds of prisoner releases — the first in exchange for information on the captives, the second in exchange for the actual delivery to Israel of the captives and the soldiers’ bodies. Israel has refused, insisting that any deal must take place in a single exchange.
In recent years talks have stalled over Hamas demands for Israel to free hundreds of jailed prisoners, including those behind terror attacks.
But now Israel believes they could moderate their demands with the dire health situation.
Gaza, ruled by the Islamist terror group Hamas since 2007, is under a tight Israeli-enforced blockade, one factor that has led to weak health infrastructure in the Palestinian enclave. Israel says the blockade is necessary to prevent Hamas, which is sworn to its destruction and fought three wars with the Jewish state since 2008, from obtaining weaponry.
Hamas acted fast in March to forestall the virus, only allowing entry to a limited number of people, who were then required to isolate for three weeks in quarantine centers.
In mid-August, Gaza had recorded only around 100 COVID-19 cases, but the past two weeks have seen a rapid deterioration in containment.
On Monday, Hamas said it had received 20,000 test kits from the World Health Organization, after warning it could no longer perform testing due to a shortage.
Facing a surge in cases, Hamas has also announced a lockdown on weekends lasting from December 11 to the end of the month. It also closed schools, universities, kindergartens and mosques.
Gaza has now registered nearly 25,600 coronavirus infections, including around 150 deaths.