The president of the International Committee of the Red Cross was to enter the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, where he was expected to raise in meetings with senior Hamas officials the fate of three missing Israeli civilians and the remains of two IDF soldiers believed held by the terrorist group.
Peter Maurer was planning to meet with the new Hamas leader in the coastal enclave, Yahya Sinwar, Palestinian sources told Arab media.
In a tweet, Maurer wrote: “It’s 3 years since I was last here to see for myself the impact of this long conflict is having on the lives of ordinary people.”
Hamas is thought to be detaining three Israelis — Avraham Abera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, and Juma Ibrahim Abu Ghanima, all of whom entered the enclave of their own accord over the past several years — as well as the bodies of two IDF soldiers — Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin — who were killed during the 2014 summer war between Israel and the terror group.
Mengistu and Sayed are both said to suffer from mental illness.
Senior Hamas political leader Sheikh Hassan Yousef said Tuesday if Maurer just wants to propose the Israelis be released, then Hamas has no interest, but if the aid chief intends to help advance a prisoner swap with Israel, they will talk to him about the issue, Israel Radio reported.
According to the report, Yousef also said that if Israel releases 58 key Palestinian security prisoners, Hamas will provide information about the missing Israelis within 24-48 hours. While it is the Hamas military wing that has final say over prisoner negotiations, Yousef’s comments could indicate a change in attitude by Hamas, which has until now demanded the unconditional release of the prisoners as a prerequisite to start any negotiations on a future deal.
In 2011, kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was released in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian detainees. Israel rearrested around 50 of those who were released in the deal in the summer of 2014 during a search for three Israeli teenagers who were kidnapped and, it later emerged, killed by a Hamas cell. It is those several dozen prisoners that Hamas wants set free before it will begin to negotiate the further release of several thousand more Palestinians held in Israeli prisons.
After his trip to Gaza, Maurer will also meet with Israeli officials in Jerusalem and Palestinian Authority officials in Ramallah. He lasted visited the region in 2014 and met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the time.
Last month, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, who has in the past criticized the Red Cross for not helping with the missing Israelis, caused a media storm by saying that Israel must not repeat the “mistake” of releasing Palestinian prisoners in exchange for captives held by Hamas.
Sinwar responded by declaring in a press release there could be no deal without Israel releasing Palestinian prisoners.
Liberman’s comments drew the ire of the families of those held, who accuse him of not doing enough.
The defense minister spoke with United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres when he was in the region for a three-day visit with Israeli and Palestinian officials late last month, asking him to apply pressure on the terror organization to return the captives.
In June, Liberman slammed international human rights groups, saying they have not even attempted to contact the Hamas-held captives. He said there would be no humanitarian improvements for Gaza until “the Red Cross at least visits them,” referring to both the living Israelis and the remains of the soldiers.
The Palestinian Authority ruled Gaza until 2007, when Hamas took over the Strip from PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction. Since then, Israel has fought three wars against Hamas in response to its firing of thousands of rockets at Israeli population centers.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.