Israel's Bargaining Chip With Hamas: The Disabled Brother of the Chief of Gaza's Security Service

Bilal Razaina has been held by Israel since November. Hamas, which is holding two Israelis who are also suffering from mental illnesses, has avoided any discussion of making any kind of humanitarian exchange.

Hamas militants stand guard during a rally marking Palestinian Prisoner's Day in Gaza City on April 17, 2016. The sign reads, 'The enemy will not know news about you unless it pays heavy prices.'
Mohammed Salem/Reuters

For two months, Israel has been holding a Hamas activist from the Gaza Strip, whose family – seconded by an Israeli court-appointed psychiatrist – says he suffers from mental illness. The man is a brother of a senior officer in Hamas’ security apparatus in the Strip. Two Israeli citizens missing in Gaza, Abera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayyad, also suffer from emotional problems.

To date, Hamas has avoided any discussion of making any kind of humanitarian exchange for the two citizens, along with the bodies of 1st Lt. Hadar Goldin and Staff Sgt. Oron Shaul, who were killed in Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014. It isn’t clear whether Hamas is holding a third Israeli, Juma Abu Anima, who also crossed into the Gaza Strip.

The Palestinian prisoner is Bilal Razaina, 24. He was arrested on November 27 while crossing from Gaza into Israel. On December 28 he was charged in Be’er Sheva District Court with being a member of an illegal organization (Hamas’ military wing, Iz al-Din al-Qassam) and weapons violations. The Shin Bet announcement said Razaina had been active in the military wing and was involved in digging attack tunnels. According to the Shin Bet, he served as a guard for Hamas and underwent sniper training.

The Shin Bet also said that during his interrogation Razaina provided a lot of information about tunnel digging and the use Hamas makes of civilian homes in the Strip for terror activity.

Razaina is the young brother of Mustafa Razaina, the head of Hamas’ internal security apparatus (their counterpart to the Shin Bet) in the northern Gaza Strip. The Shin Bet said Bilal also served as a “sidekick” to his older brother. But what the Shin Bet did not say, nor did the indictment, is that Bilal Razaina suffers from serious mental problems and that if he was a member of Hamas’ military wing it was only because of his brother’s position.

In a statement issued by the Razaina family in Gaza the day after reports that Israel had arrested him, they said Bilal was not a member of Iz al-Din al-Qassam, was not active in it and did not work for the Hamas government in the Strip. The family said their son “suffered from emotional instability and was still being treated until recently.” They also accused Israel of torturing Bilal to extract a confession about his Hamas activities.

On January 26 the Be’er Sheva court held a hearing in which a psychiatrist commissioned by the state submitted the opinion that Razaina was not fit to stand trial and needed to be hospitalized in a psychiatric facility. Razaina was transferred to the Be’er Sheva psychiatric hospital and on February 6 a hearing is scheduled at which his attorney will ask for the legal proceedings against him to be halted.

Although the two Israelis, Mengistu and al-Sayyad, were not soldiers or security people when they were caught – al-Sayyad, a Bedouin, went through the military draft procedure when he turned 18 but was released immediately because of his emotional state – there are some similarities with Razaina because of their health problems. But as far as is known, Hamas has not indicated any willingness to consider an exchange that would resolve the humanitarian distress being experienced by the families on both sides. Defense officials told the Mengistu family about Razaina’s arrest and his family’s claim that he has emotional problems.

Hamas continues to conduct a broad media campaign in Gaza to promote its demand that Israel release a large number of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the IDF soldiers’ bodies and the missing Israelis.

Hamas has been deliberately vague about the details and has hinted, to the foreign press as well, that at least one of the soldiers was taken alive and that the citizens were actually soldiers. Israeli defense officials are convinced that both soldiers were killed in the fighting and that Hamas is trying to raise the value of the “assets” it’s holding to extract heavy Israeli concessions.

Quoting senior Israeli defense officials, Haaretz reported last July that Hamas was deliberately delaying the negotiations by setting tough opening terms, as its military wing wants another Gilad Shalit-type exchange so that it can show a similar achievement. In that exchange in 2011, captured soldier Shalit was returned in exchange for 1,027 security prisoners. 

In recent days senior Hamas officials have been holding diplomatic talks with the Egyptian government and its security services. Ismail Haniyeh, Gaza’s prime minister, returned to the Strip last week via Egypt after spending five months in Qatar. Photos taken at the Rafah crossing show that Rawhi Mushtaha, Hamas’ prisoner affairs minister, was in the car with him.

An Egyptian website reported that Haniyeh’s talks in Cairo also dealt with prisoners and MIAs. Another senior Hamas delegation that included members of its security apparatus left for Cairo on Wednesday for more security talks.

Relations between Egypt and Hamas have thawed recently after a long period of tension. Egypt has extended the opening hours of the Rafah crossing and has somewhat eased its blockade of the Strip at Hamas’ request. Egypt also has been allowing an increasing amount of goods into the Gaza Strip, from cement and building materials to vehicles, which are produced in plants controlled by the Egyptian military. Israel is concerned about these imports, fearing that Hamas will exploit the transfer to obtain “dual-use” items that could also be used to dig tunnels or produce weapons.