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Hamas Is Eyeing a Prisoner Swap, While Israel Is Buying Time With Limited Gestures

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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The leader of Hamas in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar.
The leader of Hamas in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, in a March photo.Credit: Mahmud Hams/AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

On the Palestinian front, the growing number of media reports about progress in negotiations for a prisoner exchange between Israel and Hamas evidently don’t indicate that an agreement has been reached. Last week, a delegation of Hamas leaders was in Cairo in an attempt to advance the negotiations, but as far as is known, the gaps between the sides remain wide.

The Cairo talks, which ended on Saturday, were attended by both Hamas officials from abroad – Ismail Haniyeh, Saleh al-Arouri and Khaled Meshal – and the organization’s leader in the Gaza Strip, Yahya Sinwar. The host was Egypt’s intelligence minister, Abbas Kamel.

Hamas wants Israel to free hundreds of Palestinian terrorists, including convicted murderers, in exchange for two Israeli civilians and the bodies of two Israeli soldiers. In recent days, media outlets supportive of Hamas have broadcast optimism about the chances of reaching a deal. The reports said the prisoners whose release Hamas is demanding include senior Fatah official Marwan Barghouti, six prisoners recaptured after escaping from Gilboa Prison last month and Palestinians Israel has recently placed in administrative detention, a form of detention without trial.

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These demands seem unrealistic. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, like his predecessor, opposes significant concessions. Moreover, such a move would pose a greater threat to the stability of Bennett’s government than it would have to former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, given rightist opposition to such concessions.

Political sources said they don’t expect any breakthrough in the near future. They attributed this both to the government’s instability and the fact that all its members want to focus on securing Knesset approval for the state budget next month.

Until then, Israel will make do with limited gestures to the Palestinians in an effort to buy time. But in the absence of a prisoner swap, which would pave the way for major projects to improve Gaza’s infrastructure to get underway, there are well-founded concerns that another violent conflict could erupt there in the coming months.

That this hasn’t happened so far is largely due to Egypt’s efforts. Israel knows that Egypt is allowing a lot of merchandise into Gaza through its Rafah border crossing with no supervision. This is meant to compensate Hamas for Israel’s refusal to let such merchandise in through its own territory.

Israel, however, did agree to one significant gesture to the Palestinians: The number of Gazans allowed to enter Israel – mostly laborers, though the defense establishment insists on calling them merchants and businessmen – will go back up to 7,000, the level it briefly reached in early 2020, before the coronavirus erupted. Tens of thousands of Gazans have already applied for these permits.

This relief from Israel and, especially, Egypt has helped keep the Gaza border relatively quiet in recent weeks. Another contributing factor is the personal pressure Egyptian intelligence agencies are exerting on Sinwar and his people.

Hamas remains frustrated that no solution has yet been found to allow the disbursement of a third of Qatar’s aid to Gaza, which totals $30 million a month. This third is meant to pay salaries to officials in Gaza’s Hamas-run government. The obstacle is Israel’s demand that the money be paid through a supervised banking process rather than in suitcases of cash, as was the norm before an eruption of Hamas-Israel fighting in May.

Palestinian security officers at the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt as a Hamas delegation passes through on the way to Egypt for talks, Oct. 3, 2021. Credit: Said Khatib/AFP

The Qatari envoy, Mohammed Al Emadi, is supposed to visit Gaza this week. Hamas hopes he will arrive with a solution to this problem.

The Israel Defense Forces are utilizing the time provided by the ongoing negotiations to improve its operational plans for Gaza in the event of another escalation. In the West Bank, the number of security incidents has edged down after several stormy weeks following the jailbreak at Gilboa Prison and Israel’s roundup of a sizable Hamas network that was planning terror attacks in Jerusalem.

Nevertheless, the army is warning that the Palestinian Authority and its security services are having a serious problem controlling the West Bank, especially the refugee camps in the northern part of the territory. Just like the IDF, the PA security services have recently encountered armed resistance from terrorist organizations when they enter these camps.

At the same time, tensions over the Temple Mount are continuing, due to Palestinian fears of unilateral Israeli steps that could alter the status quo there. Even marginal incidents on the mount are described in the Palestinian media as dangerous turning points.

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