Hamas Denies Progress in Negotiations to Free Israeli Captives Held in Gaza

Israeli lawmaker slams reports that Hamas is closer to sealing a prisoner swap to free the Israeli civilians and bodies of soldiers they are holding, saying it will return assailants to ‘the cycle of terrorism’

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Protesters hold a sign reading "Avera Mengistu is the son of all of us" in Jerusalem. July 15, 2020.
Protesters hold a sign reading "Avera Mengistu is the son of all of us" in Jerusalem. July 15, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

A Hamas spokesperson said Monday that reports of progress toward an agreement between Israel and the Islamic movement that controls Gaza on the return of Israeli civilians and the remains of Israeli soldiers held in the Strip are untrue, saying that they serve the election campaign of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“There is no progress in the contacts, and Netanyahu is continuing to evade making decisions and playing with the emotions of the families of the Israeli captives,” said Hazem Qasem. “These are false reports and an attempt by Netanyahu to score points with public opinion before the coming election.”

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A Hamas diplomatic source in Gaza told Haaretz that in conversations that he had with senior Hamas officials this week, he was told that Hamas is not negotiating for medical assistance to Gaza, which is suffering from a surge in coronavirus infections, as part of a prisoner exchange. Hamas, the source said, is capable of obtaining assistance from international organizations.

“If the [issue] is money, in the past, Hamas was offered a large quantity of money in exchange for compromise on this matter and the organization did not agree to any compromise,” he said. Progress on a prisoner exchange, he added, can only come in exchange for Palestinian prisoners, as Hamas officials proposed in April.

Hamas is holding civilians Avera Mengistu and Hisham Al-Sayed since 2014 and 2015 respectively, and the bodies of two soldiers, Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul since 2014, in Gaza. In exchange for their release, Hamas wants the prisoners of its choosing freed from Israeli jails. On Sunday, Haaretz reported a degree of progress in recent weeks towards an agreement.

According to Arab media reports, the indirect contacts between Israel and Hamas have picked up speed recently as Gaza’s rising coronavirus cases have increased the Hamas regime’s dependence on outside assistance.

Following these reports, the chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Zvi Hauser, described the agreement as scandalous.

“Last night, some of the details of the deal that we expect for the release of terrorists were published. By virtue of my position, I have seen all of the details,” Hauser tweeted on Monday. “[The deal] would return hundreds of terrorists to the cycle of terrorism.”

Hauser called on Netanyahu “to reconsider the dangerous step and draw the necessary conclusions from the Shalit deal, in connection with which most of those who were released returned to terrorism,” he said, referring to the 2011 prisoner swap between Hamas and Israel for the release of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, who was captured by Hamas in 2006.

Israeli defense officials have expressed the belief that the prospects for reaching an agreement with Hamas have improved. Sources with links to the negotiations said Israel would not permit the release of prisoners who had killed Israelis.

If an agreement is ultimately reached, it would include a long-term cease-fire, and a commitment by Hamas to refrain from violence and to bar other Palestinian organizations from firing rockets into Israel from Gaza.

Al-Arabiya television reported that an Egyptian security delegation that visited the Gaza Strip last week discussed the details of a prisoner exchange with Hamas. The Egyptians presented the details of Israel’s proposal while Hamas conveyed its demands to the Egyptians, to be passed on to Israel, the report said. Hamas officials are demanding to be able to select which prisoners held in Israel are to be released in the exchange.

Early in the coronavirus pandemic, following reports of its spread around the world, Hamas showed a willingness to accept quick medical assistance from Israel and a readiness to compromise in exchange for the assistance in negotiations on the return of the Israeli civilians and of the soldiers’ bodies. But the contacts never came to fruition, and it appeared that from the moment that the Hamas leadership believed that it had gotten the virus under control, its desire to forge an agreement declined.

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