Last week, Israeli media reported that talks for a prisoner exchange were underway between Hamas and Israel; the first such talks to take place since the 2011 Gilad Shalit deal in which 1,027 Palestinians were freed in return for the return of an Israeli soldier.
In a new proposal, Israel is reportedly willing to release an unspecified number of Palestinian prisoners, mostly women, children and parliamentarians, in return for video evidence showing three Israeli citizens held in Gaza are alive, and the release of the bodies of two soldiers killed in the 2014 Israeli offensive. Hamas has rejected the proposal, calling instead for some 55 Palestinians to be released, as well as information on other prisoners held by occupying forces.
Whilst Israel has yet to officially confirm reports, American defence attorney Stanley Cohen told MEMO that the timings of these rumours are indicative of Israel’s motivations.
“Right now there is a tremendous amount of political pressure from the community in Israel about trying to recover the two bodies of soldiers in Gaza. So Israel is going to, for political reasons if for no other purpose, hold out and plant the seeds that negotiations are underway.”
Cohen has long been an advocate for the Palestinian cause. In 1995, he successfully defended Moussa Abu Marzouk, then the leader of Hamas’ political wing, against attempts to extradite him to Israel for trial. Following other prominent cases in the region, he has been banned from entering Israel and many Arab countries.
He remains an outspoken critic of Israel’s continued occupation of Palestine, and in reaction to the news of potential prisoner swap talks, questions the sincerity of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“In the long term, the problem is a lack of good faith by Israel. There is no doubt in my mind that Netanyahu is exploiting this for a personal political dynamic right now.”
Cohen is also a founding member of a group of international lawyers who have filed lawsuits on behalf of Palestinians against Israel in numerous national jurisdictions as well as before the International Criminal Court. The group has pursued allegations for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and violation of the Geneva Conventions. He evidenced his scepticism of Israel by emphasising the fact that the government is offering to release prisoners who had already been freed six years ago in the Gilad Shalit exchange.
What has to be remembered is that the people that Israel is apparently offering to release are being held in violation of international law. These are not people who have been arrested and charged, convicted and imprisoned.
“These are women and children and members of parliament that have been detained in violation of international law, that have not been tried, have not had their day in court and have been denied due process.”
“Once again Israel violates international law and then holds it out as a fig leaf to earn some quick political benefit itself. It’s a game to Israel; seizing and detaining people and trying to do exchanges,” he said.
Egypt is reportedly acting as a mediator in the current deal, as it has done many times in the conflict’s tumultuous history. Cohen admitted that Egypt’s influence in the upcoming talks could be beneficial for the region, especially following recent Hamas delegation’s visit to Egypt earlier this month. However, he remained sceptical of how much of a positive role it could play, amid reports that Cairo has also put forward specific demands.
“Even when it plays a neutral role, Egypt does what is best for Egypt. Egypt’s relationship with Israel is very close right now. It has a warmer relationship, for lack of a better word, with Hamas, but to certainly position itself vis a vis Gaza as being in any position of good faith, that [good faith] is lacking.”
He also stressed that Israel was not to be swayed by officials in Cairo:
Egypt cannot exert any influence on Israel. Egypt will do what is best for its position and power, and Israel will try and maximise its relationship with Egypt for its own personal benefit; if they can score some points, they will.
Cohen has dealt with numerous negotiation cases in his 37 years as a lawyer, and in 2014 was involved in an attempt to secure the release of American aid worker Peter Kassig who was held by Daesh. Of all the groups he has worked with, he identified a lack of sincerity on Israel’s part as distinctive in how the government perceives such deals.
What is unique about Israel is that it brings to the table an arrogance that basically says ‘So we have bad faith, that’s who we are, we don’t hide it’.
In light of the current crisis surrounding Al-Aqsa Mosque, Cohen envisaged how the failure of the Israeli government to respond to the request of Palestinians for free access to the mosque could harden Hamas’ stance on the prisoner exchange.
“Unlike Fatah, which easily segregates Palestinians in the West Bank and Palestinians in Gaza, Hamas does not. So it’s very clear, and Israel is well aware that if it continues the siege on Al-Aqsa … then Hamas’ position is going to harden even though they are dealing from Gaza. Because there is no separation of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank when it comes to Hamas, or when it comes to resistance movements in Palestine.”
“On the other hand, if Israel was serious about the negotiations they would temper to some degree what they are doing in Al-Aqsa; but Israel tempering simply means they will attack 200 people instead of 2,000.”