Top Israeli negotiator denies progress on talks for prisoner swap with Hamas

Top Israeli negotiator denies progress on talks for prisoner swap with Hamas

Yaron Blum says Palestinian terror group’s stance ‘unrealistic’ after report in Arabic version of the Independent says both sides are in Cairo for Egyptian-mediated negotiations

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.

Israel’s chief negotiator for the release of Israelis held by Hamas said on Saturday that the Palestinian terror group refuses to adopt a realistic stance that would allow for real progress in talks for a possible prisoner swap.

“Unfortunately, and despite real efforts on our part, Hamas is refusing to take a realistic position that would be conducive to real progress on the matter,” said Yaron Blum, a Shin Bet veteran, who was appointed in 2017 as Israel’s chief negotiator for prisoners of war and soldiers missing in action, in a comment to the Kan public broadcast radio.

Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip and has vowed to Israel’s destruction, is believed to be holding the remains of Israeli soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, whose bodies were captured by the terror group when they were killed in the Strip during the 2014 Operation Protective Edge. The terror group also holds captive two Israeli citizens — Avraham Abera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed — who are said to have entered the Gaza Strip of their own accord in 2014-2015.

Blum’s comment came in response to a report earlier Saturday that an Israeli delegation, including senior officials, was in Cairo in recent days for talks with Hamas mediated by Egyptian officials and that progress has been made.

According to a report on Saturday in the Arabic version of the UK publication the Independent Arabia citing an unnamed source, “there has been progress in recent days between the two sides.”

According to the report, the deal centers around the return of the remains of the Israeli soldiers in exchange “for an undetermined number of bodies of Palestinians held by Israel” and an aid package for Gaza. Hamas was said to have requested the release of 50 prisoners in return for the two Israeli civilians, with Israel suggesting the release of half that number, according to the Independent Arabia.

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)

The alleged progress in negotiations may be due to “[Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s desire to close this file,” according to the unnamed source, ahead of the potential formation of a coalition by Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, or another round of elections.

The source also said that “the Israeli and Hamas delegations are in the same hotel, but the Egyptian side is mediating.”

Last week, Hamas chief Yahya Sinwar denied that negotiations on a potential deal were taking place, citing the Jewish state’s lack of a government after elections.

Israel has had a caretaker government since December, when the Knesset voted to dissolve and call early elections for April.

Two rounds of elections within six months have failed to produce a sworn-in government in Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues to lead a caretaker government while his chief rival, Blue and White Party leader MK Benny Gantz has been charged with trying to form a coalition after Netanyahu, who was given first try, failed in the task.

In a cabinet meeting on Sunday, Netanyahu spoke of the prisoners’ issue, saying that Israel will “continue our efforts to return our captives and MIAs.”

“I want to say on this issue that I have full confidence in Yaron Blum who is doing his work in a credible, serious and professional manner,” the premier said.

Yaron Blum, coordinator for negotiating the return of POWs and MIAs, on April 3, 2019 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Blum’s Saturday comments were a reiteration of remarks he made last week that Hamas was being unrealistic in its demands.

Blum said at the time that Israel was working through a number of mediator channels and that there was progress toward a deal to release the prisoners, but that 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.”

IDF soldier Gilad Shalit was captured in 2006 and ultimately freed by Hamas in 2011 in exchange for Israel releasing more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.

Avera Mengistu, whose family has said suffers from a mental illness, crossed into northern Gaza in September 2014 by way of the beach. Al-Sayed crossed into Gaza in 2015 and Ghanima in 2016. The families of both men have said they also suffer from mental illness, although it is not clear if Ghanima is being held against his will.

Mengistu’s family and those of the deceased IDF soldiers Goldin and Shaul have been critical of the government saying it is not doing enough to secure the return of their loved ones.

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 flare-ups

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