Israel, Hamas Deny German FM Mediating Talks on Prisoner Swap

Germany's Steinmeier visits Gaza, laments 'catastrophic' state. 'We cannot wait to improve living conditions until talks about a two-state solution are back on track.'

Gili Cohen
German FM Frank-Walter Steinmeier during a visit to the sea port in Gaza City, June 1, 2015.
German FM Frank-Walter Steinmeier during a visit to the sea port in Gaza City, June 1, 2015.Credit: AFP
Gili Cohen

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier's Monday visit to the Gaza Strip is not part of negotiations between Israel and Hamas on swapping Palestinian prisoners for the bodies of Israeli soldiers killed during the war last summer, Israeli and Hamas officials said.

After leaving Gaza, Steinmeier said the international community should not wait for progress on the diplomatic front before providing much needed assistance to the Gaza Strip.

Speaking almost a year after the 50-day war between Israel and Hamas, Steinmeier called the situation facing the enclave's 1.8 million residents "catastrophic."

"We cannot wait to improve living conditions until talks about a two-state solution are back on track," said Steinmeier, who visited a United Nations girls school built with German support.

Meanwhile, Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon on Monday denied that the visit was linked to covert talks on a prisoner exchange deal between Israel and Hamas. A Hamas official also denied the rumor.

"The issue of the bodies of the soldiers [killed in] Operation Protective Edge, Staff Sgt. Oron Shaul and 1st Lt. Hadar Goldin, is a top priority," Ya'alon said when asked on the German foreign minister's visit, but added that "in this case there is no connection between the visit and this matter."

Abdullah Barghouti, an explosives engineer connected to Hamas, had earlier given an unauthorized interview from an Israeli jail to a Gaza radio station urging the organization's military wing not to sign a new prisoner exchange deal with Israel.

Israeli officials claimed that there were no secret channels for negotiations with Hamas, not even German officials.

The Israeli security establishment said that Steinmeier's visit was focused on the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip and included meetings the UN and Red Cross officials and not with members of Hamas.

Despite international pledges of more than 5 billion dollars, little has been achieved in the enclave's reconstruction.

In 2011, Germany helped broker a prisoners swap that saw Hamas free Gilad Schalit, the IDF soldier who had been held hostage in Gaza for over five years, in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian militants jailed in Israel.

During talks held in Jerusalem and Ramallah on Sunday, the German foreign minister had called for relaunching Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, stressing however that such negotiations "shouldn't last forever."

Steinmeier was scheduled to fly to Paris later on Monday for a meeting of foreign ministers on the war against Islamic State.

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