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Hamas denies prisoner swap talks

In an interview from Doha, Moussa Doudine, a member of Hamas’ political bureau and head of the Palestinian prisoners’ dossier, denied Israeli reports about negotiations being ongoing between Hamas and Israel on a prisoner exchange.
Barbed wire is seen on Zikim beach, Israel near the border with northern Gaza (seen in background) July 9, 2015.  Two Israeli citizens are being held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Thursday, a situation that could lead to demands for a prisoner exchange between Israel and the Islamist militant group. Hamas, which took control of the Palestinian coastal enclave in 2007 and fought three wars with Israel since then, declined to confirm or deny it had the captives. REUTERS

Moussa Doudine, a member of Hamas’ political bureau and head of the prisoners, martyrs and wounded dossier, has told Al-Monitor that Hamas will demand guarantees from Israel via a third party to force it to respect the terms of any future prisoner exchange and deny it the opportunity to renege any agreed upon obligations. Doudine emphasized that the movement will not provide information “for free” to Israel, but did not elaborate on what the price might be.

Doudine, 42, spent 18 years in Israeli prisons, from 1993 to 2011, on charges of carrying out a number of armed operations in the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ military wing, including killing and wounding a number of Israeli soldiers as well as organizing armed cells. Israel sentenced him to life in prison, where he spent seven non-consecutive years in solitary confinement. He was released in the 2011 prisoner exchange, after which Israel exiled him to Qatar, claiming he might become involved in armed operations against Israel if allowed to remain in his hometown of Hebron.

In an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor from Doha, Doudine, who is close to Khaled Mashaal, head of Hamas’ political bureau, rejected Israeli accusations that released Palestinian prisoners have engaged in armed operations in the West Bank. He also nonetheless claimed that it is the right of every Palestinian to resist the Israeli occupation. He charged that Israel's current military doctrine reflects a decline in the value once placed on its soldiers and that a related opportunistic attitude toward its soldiers will lower morale and help Hamas in the next armed confrontation.

Doudine neither confirmed nor denied reports that Hamas had formed a team to negotiate a prisoner swap with Israel. He said that the leak of this information was part of a war of nerves initiated by Israel against Hamas. Doudine said the movement is aware of this tactic and is not inclined to respond to such Israeli explorations, because Hamas has greatly benefited from previous negotiations and understands the Israeli security mentality.

Al-Monitor:  In mid-July, the head of Hamas’ political bureau, Khaled Meshaal, said that Israel had asked that the remains of Israeli soldiers and of [private citizens] who voluntarily entered Gaza be handed over. How many Israeli soldiers or [civilians] does Hamas have, be they dead or alive?

Doudine:  Indeed, we received the Israeli demand through a diplomat who wanted to activate the file of Hamas’ Israeli prisoners. In this context, the head of the movement provided a clear response and said that Hamas only acknowledges the capture of the Israeli soldier Oron Shaul on July 20, 2014, and that there is no free information. He said if Israel wants to know further information, it would have to fulfill the obligations it disavowed in the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange in 2011 and release all those it re-arrested. Only then will we be able to talk about a new deal.

Concerning the arrangement of this deal, this issue is in the hands of the competent authority in Hamas' military establishment, and there is certainly no reason for the political leadership of the movement to ask Hamas’ military establishment to disclose any information about Israeli prisoners at this stage.

Al-Monitor:  Why is Hamas refraining from revealing the fate of the detained Israelis? What are its demands to expose their identity?

Doudine:  We have reservations about giving away any information concerning the Israelis detained by Hamas due to the humanitarian interests of Palestinian prisoners. They are subjected to atrocities by the Israeli occupation on a daily basis in the prisons, which are like tombs. They are tortured every time Hamas captures Israeli soldiers. Therefore, our primary motive in all matters relating to information on Israeli prisoners is the interest of our Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, and we will not give away any information for free. I think that the Israeli occupation has tested our resolve and determination in this matter during the previous deal.

Moreover, we will not announce our demands before the start of swap deal negotiations. But the 2011 deal certainly proved that we can meet the expectations of our prisoners, our people and our nation, and we will not disappoint them.

Al-Monitor:  Is it possible to say that the swap deal has practically started between Hamas and Israel? Who are the intermediaries?

Doudine:  During the last deal, the Israeli occupation waged a war of nerves against the Palestinian prisoners and their families in an attempt to put pressure on Hamas. [Israel] leaked false information almost daily, including about ongoing negotiations and an imminent deal, all in order to push the movement to lower the ceiling of its demands. The Israeli occupation eventually reached the conclusion that when it comes to this matter, it cannot pressure Hamas, which bears the hopes of thousands of prisoners and their families. Yet today, Israel is doing it again, therefore we call [on] everyone not to rely on any information that is not issued by Hamas’ official sources.

In this respect, I confirm that there are no swap negotiations at the current stage. The families of missing Israelis do not realize that their state is exploiting their sons to fuel its wars and is ready to kill them if they are captured and to sell them if their relatives do not take steps to find out their fate. All previous experiences showed that the Israeli occupation governments only brought up this matter after families took to the street. This proved to these families that the government has been jeopardizing them for several years.

Al-Monitor:  Leaks claim that Hamas has formed a negotiating team. Can you reveal some names?

Doudine:  Israeli sources or the yellow press are behind most leaks on this subject. The Israeli enemy resorts to rumors for several reasons, including invoking the names of prominent figures in order to determine how distant or close they are to this subject and the extent of their influence. Israel tries to provoke them to obtain information and bring up dormant subjects by stirring confusion. The security institution in Hamas is aware of this maneuver and deals with this matter professionally.

Hamas prefers to remain silent and not give away any information. In brief, all we can say is that the movement has not announced its negotiating team through intermediaries, but we will not hesitate to announce the competent team if necessary. We do not need the help of some Israeli newspapers to determine who can bear the burden of handling this matter from within Hamas.

Al-Monitor:  What is the maximum ceiling Hamas wants in the swap deal? In other words, what is the number of Palestinian prisoners that Hamas wants to release?

Doudine:  The recent war in Gaza, in 2014, mostly proved that the Israeli occupation and its military institution lack any ethics. They sanctify the Israeli soldier as long as he is holding his weapon and fighting to achieve the ambitions and interests of the Israeli politicians. But Israel is willing to kill this soldier if he is captured and will ignore him for many years if he is detained.

Frankly, Hamas has been monitoring the Zionist military institution's theory about its soldiers, which has recently crystallized. The theory states, “A soldier is an angel once he carries a weapon, and a demon once he is captured.” We believe that this opportunism by the Israeli political and military institutions concerning its soldiers deals a painful blow to the occupation army’s morale. We are certain that we will reap the fruits of this in the next military confrontation with the army, in light of the moral superiority of the Palestinian resistance, which cares for its fighters and detainees.

Al-Monitor:  There were Israeli accusations that released prisoners have been responsible for executing armed operations in the West Bank. How do you respond to these accusations? How do you describe the way the countries where the former prisoners live deal with [the accusations]? Do they enjoy freedom of movement there, especially in Turkey and Qatar?

Doudine:  I must emphasize that it is the right of every free and noble Palestinian to exercise resistance against the Israeli occupation. This is a natural right guaranteed to occupied people, whether he or she is a [resistance member], a detainee, a former prisoner, a student or an employee.

Therefore, the idea that former prisoners should not be resisting the occupation — which the Israeli occupation is trying to impose on Palestinians — is unacceptable in principle. It is an attempt to impose restrictions on the prisoners who have been released in exchange deals, similar to the restrictions imposed on the released prisoners in the political negotiations between the Palestinian Authority [PA] and Israel. The prisoners who were released in the context of negotiations with the PA were forced by Israel to put in writing to never go back to armed operations. Israel is also trying to apply the same restrictions on any future exchange deal. We will not be fooled by this.

I assure you that all that has been circulated about former prisoners in Turkey and Qatar participating in commando operations is incorrect. These are stories made up by the Israeli occupation and certain parties from the PA. The most the former prisoners could have done was send money to the needy families of the martyrs, wounded and prisoners of war. The occupation, along with certain biased parties, have exploited such acts to embarrass the countries hosting the former prisoners, which treated them with great responsibility considering their history and how honorable their cause is.

Al-Monitor:  ​Will Hamas accept in the next exchange deal that Palestinian prisoners can be deported outside the West Bank, to the Gaza Strip or certain Arab countries, for example?

Doudine:  ​Before answering this question, we should ask, What is the reason behind this rabid campaign waged by Israel against the deported prisoners, given that they insisted on their deportation outside Palestine in the first place? We know the mentality of the Zionist security institution: “A good Arab is a dead Arab.”

We were convinced that if some Palestinian prisoners involved in the previous deal had stayed in the West Bank, they wouldn’t have survived. Israel would have retroactively settled the score with [them], since they dealt a hard blow to the occupation through their commando operations. This is why they were deported, with their agreement and that of Hamas’ security institution. [Hamas approved these deportations], because it is better for them to stay in the resistance arena — regardless of their geographic location and their ability to adapt and work in the worst conditions — than to remain an easy target for the Israeli occupation on the West Bank.

In anticipation of a lack of Israeli commitment to any future exchange deal, Hamas will demand guarantees from Israel via a third party. All the accusations raised regarding the deportation of Palestinian prisoners, are either spiteful acts by Palestinian parties that do not have a say in this matter, but are trying to in light of the previous [2011] exchange deal. These parties have failed to release prisoners and do not want Hamas to [achieve] this national victory [of releasing more prisoners].

These accusations are also leveled by naive innocent parties driven by emotion, who are not fond of deporting prisoners abroad and away from their families. These parties, however, are not aware of the purpose of this exceptional option and its security dimensions, as [exiled] prisoners are safe from Israel. The latter had arrested in June 2014 dozens of prisoners who had been released in the context of the [2011] exchange deal and stayed in the West Bank, while those who were exiled remained free.