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Furious, Knesset panel head confirms Israel in talks with Hamas on prisoner swap

Derech Eretz MK Zvi Hauser, who chairs the powerful Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, calls proposed deal that would release Palestinian security prisoners ‘outrageous’

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Hamas leaders Ismail Haniyeh and Yahya Sinwar in Gaza City, June 26, 2019. (Hassan Jedi/Flash90)
Hamas leaders Ismail Haniyeh and Yahya Sinwar in Gaza City, June 26, 2019. (Hassan Jedi/Flash90)

The head of the Knesset’s powerful Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee confirmed that Israel is negotiating with the Hamas terror group for the return of two Israeli civilians and the remains of two soldiers in exchange for the release of Palestinian prisoners and civil aid.

In a tweet, Derech Eretz MK Zvi Hauser called the proposed deal “outrageous,” saying it would put “hundreds of terrorists back in the cycle of terror.”

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

“As part of my position, I have been privy to all of the details,” said Hauser, who also serves as the chairman of the Knesset’s Subcommittee for Intelligence, Secret Services, Captives and Missing soldiers.

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

Curiously, Hauser said such a deal would “violate the principles of the Shamgar report,” referring to a document produced by a commission led by former Supreme Court chief justice Meir Shamgar on Israel’s policies regarding prisoner exchanges. The report, which remains largely classified, recommended moving the decision-making process from the Prime Minister’s Office to the Defense Ministry and — relevant to Hauser’s tweet, which revealed details of the negotiations — called for keeping the deliberations as much of a secret as possible.

Hauser’s remarks were likely some of the last he would make as chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, as Blue and White Party chairman Benny Gantz planned to oust him from the position after announcing he would join a rival political party led by Gideon Sa’ar.

In recent days, ostensible details of an emerging deal have been reported by Hebrew media, with unnamed officials saying that Israel was considering allowing the release of some Palestinian security prisoners, but not murderers. In addition, Israel would approve a number of civil initiatives in the Strip, both infrastructure projects and coronavirus-related medical aid. Though Israel has already approved some such projects in Gaza, it has refrained from allowing larger efforts in large part due to the issue of the Israeli captives.

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

Hamas is currently believed to be holding captive two Israeli civilians, Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, both of whom had histories of mental illness and entered Gaza of their own accord in 2014-2015, and the remains of two Israeli soldiers, Staff Sgt. Oron Shaul and Lt. 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.

Those efforts have so far failed to yield results. Israeli defense officials describe the current round of talks as being the most significant and serious to date, in light of the added pressure on Hamas from the coronavirus pandemic, which has been growing steadily in the beleaguered Gaza Strip. Yet those defense officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, indicated they hold out little hope of a breakthrough.

Hamas is considered highly unlikely to concede on the matter of the mass release of Palestinian security prisoners, a highly contentious move that no Israeli government is liable to approve, especially after the controversies surrounding a 2011 exchange to secure the release of captured soldier Gilad Shalit. Over 1,000 security prisoners were released as part of that deal — one of the most lopsided trades in Israel’s history — and many of them later returned to their terrorist activities.

In his tweet, Hauser referred to that case, saying: “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.”

Released Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit (second right), walks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (second left), then-defense minister Ehud Barak (left), and ex-chief of staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz (right), at the Tel Nof air base in southern Israel, October 18, 2011. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry/Flash90)

The issue of releasing Palestinian security prisoners remains a substantial area of contention in the current round of talks, according to Israeli officials.

Hamas has denied “any advance in the prisoners’ portfolio,” calling it an election ploy by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Prime Minister’s Office refused to comment.

Aaron Boxerman contributed to this report.

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