The issue of Israeli prisoners held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip is back on the political agenda. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has agreed to start talks through mediators with the movement's leader in the enclave, Yahya Sinwar, who has expressed his willingness to negotiate a prisoner swap.
Israel has tended to keep quiet about its soldiers captured in Gaza. Hamas, on the other hand, raises the issue from time to time in order to boost public awareness in the occupation state in the hope that pressure will then be placed on the government to do something about it.
Agreement to move forward on Sinwar's initiative is just the beginning of a long process that may or may not lead to a deal. The gap is wide, and Israel claims that Hamas has only corpses, not live soldiers. That's the government story to their families which Netanyahu uses as a pretext to put talks on the backburner.
Middle East Monitor has obtained information about the latest moves between Hamas and Israel which suggests that the latter wants to verify its intelligence about the situation of the soldiers held in Gaza. The Israeli narrative is that some of the soldiers were killed, either before their capture during the 2014 military offensive or afterward. If this is confirmed, Israel would hold the strongest hand in negotiations and be able to barter the soldiers' remains with a package of economic facilities for Gaza and possibly the release of a limited number of elderly prisoners or those with lengthy terms of imprisonment behind them.
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If some of the soldiers are still alive, though, it will be a shock to Israel's security, political and military establishment, leading to major concessions to Hamas; the Israeli public will put pressure on the government to get the soldiers home no matter what the cost. Their families will have huge popular support, and the pretext of corpses which the Israeli government has been repeating over the past few years will have no validity.
The issue dates back to 2014, when Hamas announced that it had captured Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin during Israel's war against the Palestinians in Gaza. The movement also mentioned an Ethiopian Jew called Avraham "Avera" Mengistu and a Bedouin called Hisham Al-Sayed, who both entered Gaza illegally in 2014-2015. However, Hamas did not pay as much attention to them as it did to Goldin and Shaul.
A reliable source within Hamas, who asked to remain anonymous, told me that the difficult humanitarian conditions in Gaza, especially with the coronavirus, pushed the leadership to launch the prisoner swap initiative. A deal could be intended to help get Israel to release elderly and ill prisoners, as well as women and children, as it fears for their safety during the pandemic. It could also lead to improved conditions for the people in Gaza and allow desperately-needed medical equipment into the territory.
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"The release of prisoners held by Israel for many years can be discussed at a later stage if things go smoothly," added the source. "At the start of tough negotiations about which prisoners we want to be released, it is normal not to get immediate Israeli approval."
Israel's criteria for concluding prisoner exchange deals are based on recommendations made by the 2008 Shamgar Commission. One of the recommendations is to transfer negotiation powers from the Prime Minister to the Minister of Security, but Netanyahu has refused to show the 100-page "Top Secret" report to any cabinet or government meeting.
The criteria create basic conditions that Hamas will find difficult to overcome in any new prisoner exchange deal, because they stipulate that large numbers of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel will not be handed over, as happened in the 2011 Gilad Shalit deal. Instead, if a prisoner held by Hamas is alive, a limited number of Palestinians will be released in exchange. If the captives are dead, then their remains will be returned in exchange for one Palestinian per corpse. Netanyahu has opted not to have the Shamgar recommendations approved by the cabinet, not least because Hamas captured two soldiers alive as well as Mengistu and Al-Sayed.
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The recommendations apparently set out the procedures to be adopted with regard to who contacts the families of the Israeli captives; who deals with the media; and if the talks are to be held in complete secrecy to prevent pressure being applied to the families. There are four levels of state responsibility towards its citizens held by Hamas or other enemy group: the most important is the soldier captured on active duty during a military operation; then there is the soldier or civilian captured during a hostile cross-border operation by Israel's enemies; the third level is the Israeli who crosses the border into enemy territory accidentally; finally, there is the Israeli who crosses such a border of his or her own free will.
Palestinians who are pessimistic about an imminent prisoner exchange deal believe that Netanyahu's acceptance of Sinwar's offer to start negotiations about the soldiers is simply a political ploy by the Israeli Prime Minister. He will not want to be remembered as the Israeli leader who did two prisoner exchange deals with Hamas. Hence, he is trying to get his political opponents to back him in a coalition government to conclude the deal, if the captured soldiers are still alive.
It all really hinges on the fate of Goldin and Shaul. The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) in particular will be torn between accepting conditions set for their release by Hamas, and abandoning their men, which goes against the usual principles guiding IDF operations. This could be balanced by Hamas's wish to have prisoners released on humanitarian grounds in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic. It is not, therefore, strictly the same as the 2011 deal. Nevertheless, there could be a significant easing of the blockade on Gaza, as well as provisions made for Palestinian prisoners to receive medical and hygiene equipment in Israeli prisons. If this goes through, then a major deal could follow, although negotiators have a lot to do to bridge the gap between Israel and Hamas. The continued political instability in Israel and the coronavirus don't help in this regard.
Hamas is conscious that Mengistu and Al-Sayed are not a high priority for Israel, and so may be tempted to use them quickly in exchange for humanitarian demands during the pandemic, which do not cross any of Israel's red lines. A resultant deal could pass quietly under the political and public radar in Israel. The main cards that they hold are the two soldiers. It is their release that will be the most difficult part of the negotiations that we are led to believe are about to begin. It is a delicate stage, but the humanitarian aspect of phase one could swing it.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.