As Virus Spreads Across Gaza, Hamas Is More Willing to Negotiate With Israel

An Egyptian delegation visited the Strip to discuss details of a deal with Israel, Al Arabiya reported

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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A Palestinian policeman checks cars during restricted movement on weekends due to rising COVID-19 infection in Rafah, Gaza Strip, December 11, 2020.
A Palestinian policeman checks cars during restricted movement on weekends due to rising COVID-19 infection in Rafah, Gaza Strip, December 11, 2020.Credit: SAID KHATIB - AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The past few weeks have seen some progress in contacts over a deal with Hamas in the Gaza Strip to release missing and imprisoned Israelis. According to Arab media outlets, indirect negotiations have been stepped up recently, also due to the elevated spread of the coronavirus in Gaza, which has increased Hamas’ reliance on outside aid.

At the beginning of the pandemic, in light of reports of the spread of the virus worldwide, Israel could clearly see Hamas’ desire for rapid medical assistance. It could also see its willingness, in return for such aid, to compromise in negotiations over the return of the two Israeli civilians its holds, Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, and the bodies of two Israeli soldiers, Lt. Hadar Goldin and Staff Sgt. Oron Shaul. But the contacts did not bear fruit and it seemed that from the moment the Hamas leadership believed that it had brought the virus under control in Gaza, its desire for a deal faded.

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Recently, the pandemic has spread further, with a few hundred new cases per day and a daily mortality rate of between five and 10 Gazans. Even the Hamas chief in the Strip, Yahya Sinwar, caught the virus earlier this month. The health care system in Gaza is in abysmal shape and its ability to care for the sick is limited, especially if the numbers grow significantly.

Al Arabiya TV network reported on Friday that an Egyptian security delegation that visited Gaza last week had discussed the details of a deal with Israel. According to the report, the Egyptians presented the details of an Israeli proposal and Hamas transmitted its demands through Egypt to Israel. Hamas wants to choose which prisoners will be released in a swap.

Israeli security officials are now once again saying that they believe the chances to close a deal have improved. Sources associated with the contacts said that Israel would not agree to the release of murderers of Israelis. If an agreement does happen, it would include a long-term cease-fire agreement, with Hamas pledging to refrain from violence and prohibit other Palestinian factions from launching rockets at Israel.

The Palestinians expect a large bundle of actions and gestures from Israel in exchange for the return of Israel’s missing civilians and the remains of its soldiers. In addition to the release of its prisoners, Hamas also needs immediate assistance to fight the pandemic. Israel gave medical guidance to teams from Gaza at the beginning of the crisis and allowed swab samples taken in the enclave to be tested for the coronavirus in Israel, mostly through international organizations.

As a COVID-19 vaccine begins to be distributed worldwide, the question will soon arise regarding a supply of vaccines to the Strip. It is possible that countries in the Persian Gulf will be enlisted to fund the immunization. Along with Egypt, Qatar, which transfers economic assistance to Gaza on a regular basis, is also involved in the talks.