Hamas Tries to Press Israel on Prisoner Swap With First Video of Ventilated Captive

A decision by the Palestinian group to release the footage of Hisham al-Sayed, who entered the Gaza Strip in 2015, could mean Hamas is in distress and sees Israel's looming election as an opportunity

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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A screenshot from the video Hamas released of Hisham al-Sayed, an Israeli man being held captive in the Gaza Strip.
A screenshot from the video Hamas released of Hisham al-Sayed, an Israeli man being held captive in the Gaza Strip.
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The brief video showing Hisham al-Sayed, an Israeli citizen, lying in bed with an oxygen mask over his face is the first public, significant sign of life Hamas has provided in the almost seven years since the organization captured him in the Gaza Strip.

Israel heads to fifth election, and its democracy is on the line

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This unusual disclosure could indicate one of two things – either that al-Sayed’s health has indeed worsened, as Hamas claims, or that the organization itself is in distress, and has therefore decided to apply more pressure in an effort to spur Israel to resume negotiations on a prisoner swap. Since 2015, a deal in which Hamas would release the living and dead Israelis it holds in exchange for Israel freeing Palestinian prisoners has been on the table.

A spokesman for Hamas’ military wing said Monday that al-Sayed, who was mentally ill when he repeatedly crossed the border into Gaza until Hamas finally decided to kidnap him, is also in very bad shape physically. Tuesday afternoon, the video was released.

It showed al-Sayed attached to an oxygen tank and wearing an oxygen mask. It also showed his Israeli identity card, and the camera lingered on a television screen that was showing an Al Jazeera report from an economic conference in Qatar a few days earlier, demonstrating that the video was taken recently.

The International Committee of the Red Cross stated in response to the video that "Prisoners of conflict should receive humane treatment, according to the international humanitarian law. Those who suffer from severe illness must be freed on a humanitarian basis."

When it comes to prisoner exchanges, the organizations that hold Israeli captives frequently hide their condition and refrain even from saying whether they’re alive or dead. This enables them to negotiate a preliminary deal in which they demand a high price merely for providing a sign of life.

Hezbollah always does this. Hamas, after kidnapping Gilad Shalit in 2006, quickly announced that the soldier was still alive, but it apparently concluded in retrospect that this was a mistake.

The Palestinian organization has held the bodies of two Israeli soldiers, Capt. Hadar Goldin and Sgt. Oron Shaul, since the Hamas-Israel war of summer 2014. It has striven to create uncertainty about their condition, and sometimes its spokesmen blatantly lie by pretending that the two are still alive, even though Israel knows for sure that they are dead.

With the same negotiating tactic, Hamas has also striven to create uncertainty about the conditions of al-Sayed and the second Israeli, Avera Mengistu, though in their cases, Israel knows they are alive. A year ago, Hamas released an audio recording of Mengistu. His mother said the voice wasn’t that of her son, but it later turned out that the tape was apparently authentic.

Negotiations over the fate of the captives and MIAs have been stuck for a long time. Israel hasn’t ruled out the possibility that the current video is a psychological warfare tactic through which Hamas is trying to restart the talks. The organization’s leadership in Gaza may think the decision to dissolve the Knesset and hold new elections puts the outgoing government in a weak position that Hamas could exploit to make gains in the negotiations.

On the other hand, the Israeli public isn’t especially preoccupied with the captives’ fate, perhaps in part because they are civilians from weaker socioeconomic groups. Consequently, there’s currently no real pressure on the government to close a deal quickly.

In fall 2018, as Haaretz reported in February, three senior defense officials – Gadi Eisenkot, who was then nearing the end of his term as IDF chief of staff, and the directors of the Mossad and the Shin Bet – sought to suggest a reasonable ceiling for what Israel should give Hamas as part of any prisoner swap.

Although there’s a gap between that ceiling and Hamas’ demands, their proposal seems to have left then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with considerable room to maneuver. But neither Netanyahu nor his successor, Naftali Bennett, made use of their recommendation to jump-start the negotiations.

Under the Bennett-Lapid government, Israel granted considerable relief to Gaza’s economy and infrastructure. Nevertheless, there was a kind of ceiling on these steps due to the absence of a solution to the problem of the captives and MIAs.

A year ago, a different idea was proposed – separating the negotiations over the return of the soldiers’ bodies, for which Hamas will seek a high price, from the talks over the two mentally ill civilians, since Israel can demand their return on patently humanitarian grounds, ostensibly with no relation to any deal for a prisoner swap. But in practice, as far as is known, there was no real progress on that track, either.

Perhaps by releasing the video, Hamas will force the government to address this issue, even though on the eve of an election, coalition parties won’t be eager to consider significant concessions to a terrorist organization.

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