Hamas Operatives Held in Egypt Since 2015 Released

Return of special forces to Gaza seen as significant achievement for Hamas that could relieve tensions with Israel

FILE PHOTO: Hamas police officers sit at the closed entry to the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, southern Gaza Strip, January 8, 2019.
Khalil Hamra/AP

Four Hamas operatives arrested by Egypt in 2015 have been released on Thursday and returned to Gaza, Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh announced. The move is seen as a significant achievement for Hamas that could relieve some tensions between Israel and the Palestinian organization.

Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar reported earlier on Thursday that Haniyeh, who heads Hamas' political wing, concluded a three-week visit to Cairo focusing on the operatives' release and intra-Palestinian reconciliation without securing any results.

Haniyeh confirmed he discussed the release with Egyptian officials during his visit, adding he managed to secure the release of four other Palestinians detained in the country.

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The four Palestinians, who are officers in Hamas' naval commando forces, were taken by gunmen from a bus traveling from the Rafah border crossing on the Gaza-Egypt border to Cairo International Airport. Hamas believes they are being held by Egypt, a claim never officially confirmed by Egyptian authorities.

According to some Palestinian reports, the four were headed for training in Iran. Their arrest, according to several reports, followed from intelligence provided by Israeli agencies.

Gazan sources told Haaretz that Haniyeh said the issue of the four detainees was the most important one discussed with the Egyptians and that there has been some change in Egypt's attitude during his visit.

According to Hamas sources, Egyptian officials told Haniyeh that no long-term plans would be advanced before the United States publishes President Donald Trump's Middle East peace plan, expected after Israel's April 9 election.

Hamas-affiliated Al-Akhbar also reported that under American pressure, Egyptian authorities denied Haniyeh's requests to leave for meetings in other countries. Previous visits to Cairo also included short trips to Turkey, Lebanon, Iran and Gulf states.

Gazan media reported before Haniyeh's announcement that residents began preparations in Al-Shati refugee camp in Gaza City, where the four Hamas operatives live, to welcome them back.

Their release could be considered an Egyptian gesture to Hamas aimed at ensuring tensions between the organization and Israel don't spiral out of control in the coming months. However, it remains unclear whether the Egyptian move is part of larger deal with Hamas.

In addition, the step may push forward stalled negotiations between Israel and Hamas on the return of Israeli citizens and bodies of Israeli soldiers held in Gaza.

Hamas is holding two Israeli civilians, Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, who crossed the border into the Gaza Strip, as well as the bodies of Sgt. Oron Shaul and Lt. Hadar Goldin, who were killed during Operation Protective Edge in 2014.