Defense Officials: Israel Won't Exchange Palestinian Prisoners for Missing Israelis

Hamas won't discuss the two Israelis in Gaza until Israel releases 70 prisoners rearrested last year after abduction and murder of three Israeli teens in the West Bank.

AP

Israel does not intend to free Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the two Israeli nationals being held in the Gaza Strip, Israeli defense officials told Haaretz on Thursday.

The officials said Israel sees the cases of Avera Mengistu and the Bedouin Israeli, whose name has not been released, as humanitarian and expects Hamas to release them unharmed, as both sides have done in similar incidents in the past.

The officials said the two civilians had crossed the border due to personal problems and that this isn't the first time that the Bedouin man had crossed the border out of Israel.

Earlier on Thursday, Hamas political bureau chief Khaled Meshal said his organization will not agree to any talks with Israel about the two missing men until the government releases the 70 Hamas members who were jailed last summer, three years after their release as part of the Gilad Shalit prisoner swap deal.

Meshal told reporters in Doha that Israel had approached the organization via European mediators and requested the release of two prisoners and two bodies allegedly being held by the group in Gaza.

The disappearance of two Israelis into the Gaza Strip was revealed on Thursday, following the lifting of a long-standing gag order. Little is known about either of their whereabouts. One man, Mengistu, a 28-year-old of Ethiopian descent, climbed over the security fence at an Ashkelon beach last September. He was reportedly detained and questioned by Hamas last year, and then released. The second man, an Israeli Arab who crossed at the Erez crossing in April, was apparently taken into Hamas custody and is still being held.

The Shalit deal in October 2011 saw the release of 1,027 prisoners, including 477 whose release Hamas had demanded. Most of the released men were sent to Gaza, with some departing for Turkey and other Arab states. Out of the 100 who went to the West Bank, 70 were rearrested last year: Hamas claims this was an act of revenge and a breach of the agreement it had reached with Israel back in 2011, and that these men had committed no crimes.

Reports of contacts between Israel and Hamas over prisoner exchanges surfaced right after last summer’s war. Hamas’ political and military wings claimed that, in addition to the bodies of two dead soldiers, it was also holding other prisoners, not stating if they were alive. Senior Hamas official Dr. Mahmoud al-Zahar said no details would be given without obtaining something in return.

In late June, a senior Hamas official said that the organization would fulfil its promise to release all its people from Israeli jails, hoping that some of this would happen shortly. He was referring to the recent release of two senior Hamas activists who were released at the end of their designated prison terms.

A recent visit to Gaza by the German foreign minister was dismissed by Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon as unrelated to any negotiations. He said that retrieving the bodies of Lt. Hadar Goldin and Staff Sgt. Oron Shaul, who both died during last summer’s war, was his utmost concern.

However, the Jordanian newspaper al-Dustour reported in May that Israel and Hamas were directly negotiating the resolution of this issue, assisted by several European countries. The report also mentioned the return of a dead Israeli soldier of Ethiopian origin in exchange for Hamas prisoners.

At the end of May the most senior Hamas prisoner in Israel managed to give an interview to a Gaza radio station, using a smuggled phone. He urged Hamas leaders not to rush and sign a deal that didn’t include the release of prisoners, saying the prisoners are patient.

The Lebanese satellite news channel al-Mayadeen reported in June that Hamas was holding an Israeli citizen, reportedly a diver who was swept onto Gaza’s beach. The report said Israel was denying this, pressuring his family to present him as mentally unstable. Other sites reported that the Ethiopian community knew of him, but that no public pressure was being brought to bear on the government.