Israel-Hamas Negotiations Over Prisoner Release Appear to Reach Dead End

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Lior Lotan (right) faces the press following a meeting with the Mengistu family.
File photo: Lior Lotan (right) faces the press following a meeting with the Mengistu family. Credit: Ilan Assayag

It is hard to know whether the public actions of the Goldin and Shaul families, like the statements of the government coordinator, will bring about any change on the part of Hamas.

The public statement made by the prime minister’s coordinator for captives and missing soldiers, Lior Lotan, reflects an exceptional step in the negotiations with Hamas for the release of prisoners and the return of the bodies of the dead soldiers.

Lotan’s statements seem to indicate that negotiations with Hamas have reached a dead end. If a channel for secret contacts existed, even an indirect one, then there would be no need for Lotan’s statements to the media. For now, these are negotiations with only one side.

Lotan provided a number of new details as to why a deal with Hamas has still not been reached. He said Hamas has rejected a number of Israeli proposals, including the release of 18 Palestinians from Gaza who are in Israeli prisons (including a terrorist with a long sentence), as well as the return of the bodies of 19 Hamas members killed in Operation Protective Edge in 2014.

As reported in Haaretz in early July, Lotan claims Hamas has made demands that Israel sees as impossible: The release of dozens of West Bank residents rearrested after being released in the Gilad Shalit deal.

Lotan’s statements were intended to send messages to a number of destinations. One is Hamas, which he wants to pressure into returning to effective negotiations. There have barely been negotiations since the end of Protective Edge over two years ago.

Lotan is also aiming over the heads of Hamas to a group that may believe Hamas is representing them faithfully. Israel, through Lotan (and it can be assumed that his statement was approved by the highest echelons), is telling the Palestinian families in Gaza that the organization is the one preventing the return of the prisoners and the bodies of their sons, as few as they may be.

At the same time, Israel is sending a message to the Hamas prisoners it holds that, given the way the organization’s leadership in Gaza is acting, there is no chance that even a few of them will be released.

But it is possible that his statement was also intended for the Israeli public, to bring them up to date. After the signing of the agreement with Turkey at the end of June, claims were made, including by a number of ministers who voted against the agreement with Turkey, that the deal abandoned the soldiers and captives.

At the end of August, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman was quoted as saying that it will be impossible to bring back the bodies of Lt. Hadar Goldin and 1st Sgt. Oron Shaul from Gaza in light of the Hamas’ demands. His office did not completely deny the statement initially, but two days later Lieberman denied it.

For now, the Goldin and Shaul families have come out with their own announcements. At the funeral of Herzl Shaul, Oron’s father who died of cancer two weeks ago, his family said that he regretted his agreement to allow the IDF to declare his son dead, based only on partial evidence.

The government will have to decide between two opposing positions. The Goldin family has asked the government to put pressure on Hamas – but not to release prisoners in return for Hadar’s body. Instead, they urged it to take actions against Hamas and Gaza in the civilian sphere and possibly to worsen the conditions of Hamas prisoners in Israel, in an attempt to advance the negotiations.

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