Top Hamas official says terror group willing to enter prisoner swap talks
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Top Hamas official says terror group willing to enter prisoner swap talks

Musa Dudin urges Israel to make use of ‘window of opportunity,’ but says Netanyahu not serious about reaching understanding with Hamas; Egyptian military said to offer to mediate

Jacob Magid is the settlements correspondent for The Times of Israel.

A composite photo of IDF soldiers Oron Shaul, left, and Hadar Goldin, right.
A composite photo of IDF soldiers Oron Shaul, left, and Hadar Goldin, right.

A senior Hamas official said Wednesday that the terror group was willing to enter talks “tomorrow” to return two Israeli civilians and the bodies of two soldiers killed in the 2014 Gaza War.

Musa Dudin, a member of the Hamas political bureau, speaking on a Hamas-affiliated TV channel, said Israel had a “window of opportunity” that it can take advantage of before it will once again be forced to “negotiate under more difficult conditions,” apparently referring to the willingness to make a humanitarian gesture during the coronavirus crisis.

Hamas is believed to be holding two Israeli civilians — Avera Avraham Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed — who are though to have entered the Gaza Strip of their own accord in 2014-2015, as well as the bodies of Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, IDF soldiers killed in the 2014 Gaza war.

Dudin said “Israel knows what the demands are and that they should not be discussed in the media.”

His remarks come after Palestinian media said Hamas was holding internal deliberations on whether to enter talks with Israel and that the Egyptian military had offered to mediate between Israel and Hamas.

The brother of Avera Mengistu (r) and father of Hisham al-Sayad pose for a picture as they hold a press conference calling for the release of the two Israeli citizens from Hamas captivity, on September 6, 2018. (Hadas Parush/FLASH90)

Without specifying, Dudin called on “mediators to be fair and not biased in favor of Israel.”

In a Tuesday message to Hamas, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel is prepared to take “constructive action” to bring back Israelis and soldiers’ remains held in Gaza.

Israel’s chief negotiator for the release of Gaza captives, Yaron Blum, in collaboration with the National Security Council and the defense establishment, is “committed to acting constructively with the aim of bringing back the soldiers’ bodies and missing civilians and putting an end to the issue,” Netanyahu’s office said in a statement, adding that the premier was calling “for immediate dialogue between mediators” to facilitate a deal.

However, Dudin dismissed Netanyahu’s statement as “propaganda,” saying he had not taken any concrete action.

Hamas on Tuesday issued a statement responding to Netanyahu, saying, “The ball was now in [Israel’s] court to take practical steps” toward a deal and that it would “reply responsibly to any real response” from Israel.

The statement from Netanyahu’s office appeared to be in response to an interview Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar gave last Thursday in which he revealed the terror group’s willingness to reach a deal.

Addressing the ongoing humanitarian crisis due to the coronavirus, Sinwar told al-Aqsa TV, “I want to take advantage of this opportunity. We have a possibility… There is an initiative to set this file in motion.”

Left, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem on December 22, 2019. (AP/Tsafrir Abayov, Pool). Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar meets with the head of the Central Elections Commission, Hanna Nasser, in Gaza City on Octoberr 28, 2019. (AP/Khalil Hamra)

“The occupation [could agree to] more of a humanitarian measure than a ‘swap’ measure,” he continued. “It releases the ill inmates, the elderly, the female prisoners. There is a large number. We might be able to provide something partial in return regarding this issue.”

He suggested that such a swap might be possible amid the coronavirus crisis but insinuated that Hamas would not release all the Israelis it is holding because that would be part of a larger swap and they have a “high cost.”

While he did not specify what exactly the terror group would give in return, his emphasis on a “humanitarian measure” has led some analysts to believe he might be referring to his willingness to release the two captive civilians, Mengistu and al-Sayed.

In the past, Hamas negotiators have refused to consider any deal to return the soldiers’ bodies and civilians that does not include Israel’s release of security prisoners who were freed in the Gilad Shalit 2011 prisoner exchange before being rearrested over further violations.

In November, Blum, the Israeli negotiator, said that Hamas was refusing to adopt a stance that would allow for real progress in talks for a possible prisoner swap.

However, he insisted that Israel was working through a number of mediator channels and that while there was progress toward a deal to release the prisoners, Hamas “is not yet ripe for a deal — its demands are crazy. It doesn’t understand that the Israeli public has changed and there will not be a second Shalit deal.”

Israel released more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners as part of the deal for the release of Shalit, who was captured by Hamas in 2006.

A deal over the Israeli captives and remains is believed to be one of several issues holding up a long-term ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas following long months of tensions and flareups.

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