Reports concerning the renewal of negotiations between Israel and Hamas over the fate of Israel’s prisoners and the remains of missing soldiers are slowly leaking out. The coronavirus crisis has changed the priorities of the Hamas regime in Gaza, which now needs Israeli and international aid to contend with a possible outbreak of the pandemic inside its territory.
Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar said two weeks ago he was interested in resuming talks. At the same time, he threatened Israel with a military escalation if Israel did not help Gaza fight the spread of coronavirus on its turf. Since then reports, mainly in Arab media, have provided news of supposed developments in these negotiations. Among these reported developments, were a Palestinian demand for the release of large numbers of prisoners in exchange for information on the condition of two Israeli civilians, Abre Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed; the involvement of German and Egyptian mediators in the indirect talks, and a claim by Palestinian sources that the first part of a deal will involve a shipment of respirators from Israel to Gaza.
The coronavirus situation has caused a fundamental change in the situation. Hamas has had an advantage in the negotiations with Israel ever since they’ve been holding the bodies of two IDF soldiers, First Lt. Hadar Goldin and Sgt. Maj. Oron Shaul, from Operation Protective Edge in 2014. Hamas held these “assets” that Israel wanted badly, but did not agree to pay the price Hamas was demandeding. The organization was in no rush to close a deal, probably believing that Israel would ultimately relent on its terms.
Looking at prisoner exchange deals in the past shows that in most, if not all of these cases, the final compromise was closer to the demands of the other side. According to various reports, in this case negotiations have been stuck for a long time due to a precondition set by Hamas that Israel release Palestinian prisoners from the West Bank which Israel had freed in a deal for Gilad Shalit in 2011, but later arrested again after the kidnappings of three youths in the Etzion Bloc area in 2014. The prisoners were taken anew into custody based on a claim that they had violated the terms of their release.
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This time, circumstances are different. The virus has created an opportunity. The question is whether Israel will act with the requisite wisdom to bring this matter to a successful conclusion. Hamas, as is clear to everyone involved, is incapable of contending with a significant outbreak of the virus on its own. So far, 13 people in the Gaza Strip have been diagnosed with the virus, nine of whom have since recovered. The population there is very young, with only three percent of Gaza’s residents older than 65.
But the enormous overcrowding in Gaza can be fertile ground for a rapid spread of the virus, with only a few dozen respirators on hand to treat any serious cases. In recent weeks, Israel has trained doctors from Gaza and transferred test kits, protective equipment and disinfecting materials to Gaza.
Hamas may need many more supplies and Israel is a main source of aid to avert disaster. Egypt’s potential to help is very limited. The Gulf states, led by Qatar, are helping Gaza, but have a long list of commitments. One can identify three components in the current negotiations with Hamas: the breakdown of contacts into several smaller topics, an unclear picture of its assets and the issue of timing and leveraging an advantage.
According to some reports, Hamas has insisted on keeping aid for dealing with corona separate from the prisoner release talks. The organization has refused to link the issue of prisoners and missing soldiers to security, civilian and humanitarian issues. Thus, it has managed to accumulate a maximal number of achievements in other areas without paying a price regarding prisoners.
Hamas is reportedly asking to Israel to pay for information regarding the condition of its imprisoned civilians, or pay separately for these civilians and then leave the issue of the soldiers’ remains for resolution at a later stage. Hamas’s goal is to chalk up some achievement on the road to a deal, while keeping all the cards in its hands.
Israel’s effective strategy in this case will be to hold fast. The latest change in the balance of power is dramatic: Hamas is weaker since it needs tangible results more than Israel does. The issue is no longer about seeking Israel’s release of older prisoners as a humanitarian gesture, but about reeopening the door to massive Israeli aid to fight the coronavirus. It seems that the required approach should be a refusal to divide up these issues and to insist on a comprehensive deal for the return of all civilians and soldiers.
Hamas has been trying to blur its assets in the talks, by deliberately refusing to say who is alive. Moreover, Hamas has spread disinformation, saying that the soldiers were alive, even though Israel knows for certain that both are dead. One can anticipate that this pattern of responses will continue, with Hamas trying to blur facts and resort to deception. Reports surfaced anew this week that soldiers whose remains they are holding were alive.
The state will have to maintain transparency with the families of these soldiers and civilians and provide them with information during negotiations. It appears to be possible and preferable not to have to pay a price only for information about the prisoners and missing soldiers. The soldiers’ fate has already been determined by the IDF after it examined all the information it had. Hamas’ signals regarding a phased deal (information first, a release later) suggest with high probability that the civilians are indeed alive.
Hamas has assumed all along that time was on its side, and that it had an edge as it kept broadcasting it was in no hurry to close a deal. Moreover, since the fate of its own prisoners is known, and since Israel is abiding by international law with regard to its treatment of these prisoners, their continued incarceration is not that terrible as far as Hamas is concerned.
Israel, for its part, worries about winding up with another Ron Arad story (the captive and never-returned navigator), times four since it has no information, and faces a risk that all contact with these prisoners could be lost. But cirumstances have changed. Israel could just continue with the present situation, which for Hamas means Israel could withhold aid it would need to prevent a spread of the virus throughout Gaza, which could risk Hamas’ rule there.
These circumstances enable Israel to demand a comprehensive deal for the return of prisoners and bodies in one shot, in exchange for a reasonable number of Hamas inmates. Israel can insist on holding direct negotiations without numerous mediators, and seek a much lower price than what it paid for the Shalit deal. In a totally unexpected way, the coronavirus crisis has provided an opportunity to resolve the prisoners and missing soldiers issue in Gaza at a reasonable price. The release of a few dozen prisoners only for information, or the return of civilians without the troops’ remains, would not be the correct way to proceed.