Amid Coronavirus Crisis, Israel Indicates Willingness to Engage in Talks With Hamas on Prisoner Exchange
Israel called on Tuesday for the immediate resumption of indirect talks with the Gaza Strip’s Hamas rulers on the return of two Israeli civilians and the remains of two soldiers held for years in the Palestinian territory.
The appeal came in a statement from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office after Hamas said it might be willing to move forward on the issue.
Last week, Israel linked any future coronavirus-linked aid to neighboring Gaza on progress in efforts to recover the two soldiers — Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, who were killed during Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014 — and the two civilians — Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed — who separately slipped into the enclave.
Hamas has said it holds all four. The Islamist group has never stated whether the soldiers are dead or alive, but neither has it provided a sign of life, as it did in a previous similar case.
The families of the two civilians said they suffered from mental health issues.
Hamas has said that returning the four Israelis would require negotiating a prisoner swap and would not be done in exchange for humanitarian aid.
In its statement, the Israeli prime minister’s office said Netanyahu’s national security team “stands ready to take constructive action with the goal of returning the fallen and the missing and of ending the affair, and are calling for an immediate dialogue via mediators.”
In past rounds of talks, Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations have served as intermediaries.
Yahya Sinwar, Hamas chief in Gaza, has rejected the linkage to coronavirus aid, but last Thursday said he saw “a possible initiative to revive this issue” of the Israelis held in the territory if Israel freed jailed Palestinians.
“A prisoner swap will exact a big price” from Israel, he told Hamas’s Al-Aqsa TV, saying that were it to start by releasing sick, old and female prisoners “we may offer something partial in return.”
Reportedly, Sinwar is motivated by fear that the coronavirus may infect Hamas prisoners incarcerated in Israel, where more than 9,000 people have tested positive for the disease.
Hamas, which has 13 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Gaza and hopes to curb its spread, wants Israel to ease economic conditions. Israel is also loathe to deal with a new humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
Brig. Gen. (res.) Michael Milstein was quoted by the Israeli news site N12 as commenting, “I do not remember in recent years such a prominent signal from Hamas about wanting to negotiate a prisoner deal.”
Milstein added that Hamas was not only motivated by concern for its prisoners, but mainly by “the anxiety about a corona outbreak in Gaza and the understanding that there is a need for Israeli aid.”
The Israeli news site Walla reported that officials in the Israeli security establishment were divided about the feelers put out by Hamas. Some believed Hamas was prepared to compromise due to the coronavirus threat and the difficult economic situation in Gaza.
Others felt Hamas was merely attempting to manipulate Israel into providing medical and food supplies to it during the coronavirus crisis.
However, Israel has recently been engaged in backroom diplomacy on the Gaza issue. In the first week of February, the head of the Mossad, Yossi Cohen, and the chief of IDF Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Herzi Halevi, traveled to Qatar and met there with top security officials, including the Gulf country’s envoy to Gaza.
The Qatari government is generally seen as being close with Hamas and capable of influencing the group.