Fears over Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli jails contracting COVID-19 have triggered Egyptian-mediated discussions to secure a prisoner swap deal between Israel and Hamas-ruled Gaza.
The continuing mobilisation and efforts to resume talks on this file emerged last April following media reports that some Israeli prison guards, as well as a number of detained Palestinian prisoners, tested positive for the virus. This worrying news led to Palestinian demands to release at least the vulnerable including the elderly, chronically-ill prisoners and children.
It is also an ideal opportunity for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to push for a deal. He is struggling to revive his image as a strong leader after he suffered defeats in the last three elections held in less than a year. He was unable to form a government due to a lack of required seats. He is under pressure from his opponents in the ruling coalition – the Blue and White alliance under the leadership of retired generals Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi. No doubt he is also under immense pressure from the families of the captives and it's clear that he reluctant to bow to Palestinian pressure exercised by Hamas. It's not easy for Netanyahu to swallow a repeated scenario and scenes similar to the 2011 Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange, which at the time saw the release of 1,027 Palestinians in exchange for Shalit, who remained in Hamas' captivity for almost five years
The current mediated effort is the 7th round of indirect negotiations aimed at reaching a deal since the end of Israel's all-out onslaught waged on the besieged Gaza Strip in the summer of 2014. Other mediators have been involved such as Russia, Germany, Switzerland, Turkey and Qatar.
Israel currently is imprisoning more than 5,000 Palestinian prisoners and detainees, including about 700 who suffer from chronic diseases, 41 women, 190 children, in addition to 430 who are held under the arbitrary administrative detention orders without charges or trial.
What is the proposed deal?
The timing of indirect talks is significant and the possibility of announcing a deal is imminent.
Over the past six years, Israel has failed to locate or gather inelegance about the fate or well-being of four Israelis being held in Hamas' captivity.
Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin are two Israeli soldiers, who went missing during the invasion of the eastern parts of Gaza during the last war. It's not known if they are still alive as Hamas refuses to disclose their fate. They have been in its captivity for almost six years so far. However Israel insists they were killed and demands the return of their remains. Another two Israeli citizens are also in Hamas' captivity, Avraham Mengistu of Ethiopian descent and Hisham Al-Sayed, a Palestinian with Israeli citizenship who both were captured by Palestinian resistance groups after crossing into Gaza separately under strange circumstances in 2014 and 2015, respectively. Tel Aviv insists both are suffering from mental illnesses, a claim rejected by Hamas, referring to them as Israeli combatant soldiers.
As a goodwill gesture, the movement's leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar – who is a former prisoner of Israeli jails and was freed in the 2011 exchange deal – has announced in early April that his movement may reveal information or a video about the status of the captive soldiers in exchange for humanitarian and medical aid for Gaza, needed to tackle the coronavirus pandemic.
Hamas has asked for a two-step deal. The first step would see Israel release some elderly and chronically-ill prisoners, as well as those (around 60) who were re-arrested by Israel after they were released under the 2011 Shalit swap, in return for Hamas to release the two Israeli civilians.
The second step would see a list of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners including some with high sentences released, in return for handing over soldiers Shaul and Goldin, whether alive or dead. But Israel wants a single deal.
"Netanyahu needs to score a new achievement in order to improve his position and shaky image. I believe that this deal will finally become a reality this year. We need to see our political prisoners released," Husam Al-Dajani told MEMO.
Some believe that talks about securing a deal are far from becoming a reality: "What we are witnessing is some efforts to resume the negotiations. Israel is not ready. [Ismael] Haniyeh's remark to abduct more soldiers is a message of defiance," political analyst Ibrahimn Al-Madhoun, informed MEMO.
How soon can a deal be implemented?
Due to coronavirus lockdown, Prisoner's Day on 17 April was mainly marked online, while this year's 72nd anniversary of the Nakba on 15 May was also commemorated widely online. As the pandemic persists, both Palestinians and Israelis are still under lockdown measures. But for Palestinians and their political prisoners in Israeli jails, lockdown is not a new experience, simply for their familiarity with being subjected to military occupation, segregation, siege, curfews, imprisonment and confinement.
Both Israel and Hamas need this deal more than ever. It will be a boost for Hamas' popularity, which has been ruling two million inhabitants under the ongoing 14-year Israeli siege that pushed poverty and unemployment to its highest level ever, with two thirds of the population now relying on food and aid assistance from local and international donors. This deal, if implemented, will again be an embarrassment to the Palestinian Authority (PA), as peace negotiations between the latter and Israel, at least over the past 20 years, have not lead to the release of any Palestinian political prisoner from Israeli jails, let alone Fatah official Marwan Barghouti and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) leader Ahmad Sa'adat, who have been languishing behind Israeli bars for many years.
According to political analyst Sharhabeel Al-Ghareeb, who shares a positive angle with MEMO: "The first step is most likely to be implemented on the eve of Eid Ul Fitr. There is good progress, so it's a matter of time to see the final second deal."
Blackmailing is a backbone in politics, and it would be no surprise to hear that Israel conditions its agreement to any deal to Hamas' restraint if Netanyahu implements on 1 July the official annexation of the Jordan Valley, dozens of illegal settlements and confiscated lands across the occupied West Bank.
Last Wednesday, Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh hinted and threatened that his movement could capture more Israeli soldiers. His remark comes to increase pressure on Netanyahu and Gantz to speed up the deal.
On 11 May, a statement released by UNICEF and the UN Human Rights office in the state of Palestine called for the immediate release of 194 Palestinian children in Israeli detention centres and prisons. According to the UN bodies, the vast majority of these children have not been convicted of any offence but are being held in pre-trial detention.
The file of political prisoners is an important one for the resistance factions and for the Palestinian people as a whole. Any temporary pause to achieving or implementing the deal would not necessarily mean to revert to square one. The deal could be part of a larger package that will lead to a long-term truce and a border security arrangement, and alleviate the suffering of Gaza's residents who live in the world's largest open-air prison.
Freedom is precious. Hamas and Israel want to raise the level of their demands and conditions to achieve an honourable deal. The ball is in Israel's court, but it is worried that making concessions and accepting Hamas' terms would encourage Palestinian resistance groups to capture more Israeli soldiers.
All indicators show that a deal is ripe and awaiting the green light from both sides to implement its initial stages, most likely as soon as lockdown is lifted.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.