Senior political and defense officials said over the weekend that Israel will not free Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the two Israeli nationals in the Gaza Strip. The officials said Israel sees both incidents as “humanitarian events” that should not be part of a prisoner exchange.
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Since Israel regards both cases as being a humanitarian issue, unconnected with the exchange of prisoners, Israel is differentiating between ensuring the return of the missing civilians and negotiations over the return of the bodies of two Israel Defense Forces soldiers killed in Gaza – Lt. Hadar Goldin and First Sgt. Oron Shaul.
Israel is waiting for some response, official or unofficial, from Hamas on the reports that Avera Mengistu from Ashkelon and a Bedouin youth whose name has been withheld are being held in the Gaza Strip.
Hamas made contradictory statements last September when Mengistu crossed into the Strip, increasing Israeli fears as to his fate. Defense officials say the chances are higher that the missing Bedouin is alive and in custody, despite the silence of Hamas on the case.
Hamas has said in the past that its security forces released Mengistu shortly after he entered the Strip and that he left for Egypt via the Rafah checkpoint. Israel does not believe this and fears the statemet was meant to hide the fact that Mengistu had been injured while being held by Hamas.
In the period after Mengistu’s presumed capture Israel has received no indication of his condition. It is possible that Hamas’ silence regarding the Bedouin Israeli also stems from the confusion over Mengistu’s condition and that Hamas wants to keep Israel in the dark regarding both incidents, officials said.