The opposition in the cabinet to the reconciliation deal with Turkey, pressing the claim that the agreement has abandoned the four Israeli citizens and soldiers missing or being held by Hamas in Gaza, could very well hinder progress toward talks with Hamas over their release, a senior official involved in the matter told Haaretz on Thursday.
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Hamas has been avoiding holding any effective negotiations over the release of the two civilians, Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayyad, and the return of the bodies of the two soldiers, 1st Lt. Hadar Goldin and Staff Sgt. Oron Shaul, in exchange for prisoners held by Israel, said the official. He said he fears the increasingly strident public disagreement, alongside the protests of the families, could well convince Hamas, mistakenly, that it has the ability to wring out a much higher price from Israel for the deal, and in doing so delay the opening of new contacts on the issue for a long time.
According to this analysis, the military wing of Hamas is handling the matter of the four Israelis, and has kept the political leadership far from any involvement. They are eager to achieve a “Gilad Shalit Deal 2” – a success that brought about the release of hundreds of Palestinian security prisoners – even though this time the circumstances are completely different than in the Shalit affair.
Hamas’ strategy is built on four principles: 1) ambiguity – the organization will not provide details about the state of the missing; 2) aggrandization – the two civilians are presented as soldiers. They are shown on billboards in Gaza, Mengistu as a Border Police officer of Ethiopian origin (who is not Mengistu) and al-Sayyad has had an IDF uniform Photoshopped on him. 3) attrition – wasting time with the goal of forcing Israel to give in to the pressure; and 4) delays and sabotage – it is almost two years since Operation Protective Edge ended in 2014, and a year since Sayyad entered Gaza, but still no real negotiations to free them has begun.
Defense sources attribute these delays to Hamas’ strategy to set uncompromising minimum conditions, firstly a mass release of prisoners. Hamas, according to this view, has yet to decide to begin serious negotiations and certainly not to conclude an agreement. Conducting negotiations with Hamas, as the Shalit affair has shown, is problematic because the organization takes a very long time before even being willing to start serious contacts. Typically, various signals are exchanged between the two sides via a wide range of channels, some of which are in competition, before a framework is established and it becomes possible to get down to details. At this stage, Hamas has shown no willingness to discuss details of a possible deal.
A critical component in Hamas’ agreement to begin concrete negotiations is the group’s analysis of conditions in Israel, and its study of the pressure applied by Israeli public opinion on the government to make concessions. An analysis conducted by the defense establishment on the Shalit affair revealed that Hamas most likely decided during the contacts to freeze the negotiations for about a year, after it received the impression that the public campaign run by the Shalit family would lead the Netanyahu government to make much farther-reaching concessions.
Claims made by a few government ministers, on behalf of the families, that it was possible to delay the agreement with Turkey to force Hamas to return the hostages and bodies was factually baseless, said the senior official. Turkey’s ability to influence Hamas, and its military wing in particular, is not great and the Turks cannot serve as an effective mediator to bring Hamas to conduct real negotiations. In addition, Ankara is unwilling to be seriously involved in the matter.
Security sources say there is no justification to apply economic pressure now on Gaza because this would not lead Hamas to be more flexible. The rehabilitation of the Gaza economy is needed to calm the situation and prevent deterioration into another war, while the negotiations over a swap must be handled separately, focusing on the military wing.