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Despite Rumors, No Progress on Hamas-Israel Prisoner Swap

Hamas denied reaching any progress on a prisoner exchange with Israel, amid reports on Wednesday indicating that given the difficult situation in the Gaza Strip due to the coronavirus crisis and the blockade, the Islamist group might soften its demands.

Husam Badran, a Qatar-based member of Hamas’ political bureau, told The Media Line there were no new developments regarding a prisoner exchange because of Israel’s inflexibility.

The truth is, there is nothing new regarding this matter,” Badran said. “The problem is on the Israeli side.”

Hamas is holding Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, two mentally ill civilian Israelis who entered Gaza on their own, and the bodies of Lt. Hadar Goldin and Sgt. Oron Shaul, both slain in the 2014 war.

Dr. Hussam al-Dajani, a political analyst and professor of political science at Ummah University in Gaza who specializes in the Palestinian issue, told The Media Line there was movement on a swap, even if Hamas denied it, which would be because the Islamist group took in consideration the feelings of the prisoners held by Israeli and their families.

“If this file goes public indicating movement at an official level, it will have effects,” Dajani said. Such leaks would help Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in Israel’s election to be held in March, and he did not deserve it, the professor further explained.

“A deal hasn’t materialized because of Israel’s intransigence and its classification of some prisoners, in addition to Israel’s lack of commitment to what was agreed upon through Egyptian mediation in the Gilad deal,” Dajani continued.

Hamas held Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier, captive for five years, until a deal brokered by German and Egyptian mediators was reached in 2011 to release him in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners.

Dajani said that Israel violated the agreement after an operation took place in Hebron, where it accused some of the freed prisoners of being behind it and arrested 60 of them. “Hamas relies on Israel’s commitment to the international agreements reached between Egypt and Israel.”

Dozens of the Palestinians released in the Shalit prisoner exchange resumed paramilitary activity. One cell in Hebron allegedly planted a bomb and plotted to kidnap an Israeli soldier.

Dajani said there was no progress on a new prisoner exchange for a variety of reasons, chief among them the lack of pressure by the families of the “captive soldiers” on the Netanyahu government, in addition to internal Israeli partisan conflict.

“Also there is Israel’s unwillingness to allow Hamas and the resistance to score points by having their methods lead to the release of the prisoners,” he said.

He asked how, when Israel would not release prisoners in negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, could anyone say that resorting to violence might not lead to results. “This question is posed to the American community. Israel doesn’t keep to agreements, or provide alternatives.”

Dajani said that on the humanitarian level, Hamas wanted to release the “captive soldiers” and free the Palestinian prisoners. “They all need to go back to their families. We are talking here about four Israeli soldiers in exchange for 6,000 prisoners who were defending their lands and rights. This should be the approach.”

He continued that Israel’s Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz, who is also defense minister, was trying to mislead the Israeli media and the international community with a different approach, “offering to trade the four ‘soldiers’ for coronavirus aid and an end to the blockade, which the Palestinians will never accept.”

Gershon Baskin, a former adviser to the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and to Palestinian leaders involved in the Middle East peace process, and who was involved in the efforts to free Shalit, told The Media Line it was unlikely Netanyahu would make a deal with Hamas while Israel headed to elections.

“I think there was a window of opportunity, as both sides showed more flexibility, but that window is closed now until there’s a new government [in Israel],” Baskin said.

An agreement with Hamas was completely dependent on the outcome of the election, as the recent opportunity for progress came because Yamina leader Naftali Bennett and Yisrael Beitenu chairman Avigdor Liberman were not part of the outgoing government, and therefore Netanyahu could have gotten a deal approved by his cabinet.

“It’s unlikely, based on what the polls say, that the next government will be a government that will agree to a deal that Hamas accepts,” Baskin said.

The big sticking point was that Hamas demanded the release of prisoners who killed Israelis, and the Israeli side rejected this, he pointed out.

Baskin added that based on the polls, the next government will be the most right-wing in Israel’s history.