Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar spoke directly to Gaza via Hamas' television network April 2. Sinwar told residents about how Hamas is preparing for the war against the pandemic. Among other things he showed them how the keffiyeh, or headscarf worn by Muslim men, could help them protect themselves and their surroundings. He then spoke directly to Israeli Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, saying that Hamas doesn’t need any help but threatening, “If ventilators are not brought into [Gaza], we’ll take them by force from Israel and stop the breathing of six million Israelis.”
Now as in the past, such threats from Sinwar and other Hamas leaders are intended to tell the people of Gaza that the organization is still strong and has options. However, these baseless threats revealed what really concerns Sinwar. He is worried that the novel coronavirus pandemic will spread to Israeli prisons and infect Palestinian security prisoners being held there. For the first time ever, a Hamas leader stated that he is willing to compromise on the issue of prisoners.
In the past, Hamas had shown no flexibility whatsoever when it comes to negotiating over returning the bodies of Israeli soldiers Hadar Goldin and Shaul Oron, which have been held in Gaza for the past six years, or Israeli civilians Avera Avraham Mengistu and Hisham as-Sayyid, who are held by Hamas. “We are ready to make partial concessions on our prisoners issue in exchange for Israel's release of elderly prisoners, patients and prisoners as a humanitarian gesture in light of the coronavirus crisis,” he said.
If there is one thing that Israel and Hamas are both worried about, it is the spread of the coronavirus in Israeli prisons. As for Israelis charged with criminal offenses, Minister of Internal Security Gilad Erdan has ordered that some will receive an early release, while others will be placed under house arrest. The release of security prisoners is another story.
According to figures released March 29 by the human rights organization B’Tselem, some 4,500 security prisoners are currently held by Israel under relatively crowded conditions. The country’s prison service is not prepared for the pandemic. It will have a hard time isolating prisoners in jail facilities or external isolation units.
Sinwar, who was released from an Israeli prison as part of the Gilad Shalit deal in 2011, is well aware of the trap that Israel finds itself in. Sinwar said that the Hamas and Izz ad-Din al-Qassam leadership is tracking the health of prisoners in Israeli jails. If Israel doesn’t take steps to ensure their continued health and well-being, Hamas will take major retaliatory action, Sinwar warned.
One Israeli security source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “Sinwar recognizes Israel’s weak point and understands the inherent risk. Hamas has made some outlandish demands over the last few years when seeking a deal for the release of the soldiers’ bodies. It looks like Sinwar and other leaders of the movement are fully aware that the chances of Israel agreeing to release hundreds or even thousands of prisoners are slim at best.”
He said that the coronavirus crisis actually serves the interests of Hamas from several perspectives. The organization can take advantage of Israel's worry about a mass outbreak of the virus in its prisons and link a prisoner deal with aid to Gaza, including ventilators.
Hamas is well aware that the coronavirus crisis threatens the health of Gaza residents and that the means at its disposal to fight the pandemic are limited, to put it mildly. A serious economic and humanitarian crisis will exacerbate this threat immensely, so the organization needs to improve its standing in Gaza now.
Alaraby al-Jadeed reported April 5 that Israel approached Egypt to mediate a deal with Hamas. The newspaper did not say whether Israel approached Egypt in response to Sinwar’s remarks, or if it happened earlier. Al-Monitor has not been able to confirm the report in Alaraby al-Jedeed, so it is unclear whether negotiations toward a deal are already underway or if the parties are just sending out feelers. Nevertheless, one thing is clear. Sinwar threw Israel a rope, even if he included conditions such as releasing several dozen prisoners released in the Shalit deal who were arrested in 2014. Israel apparently no longer sees them as a bargaining chip.
As for the release of prisoners for humanitarian reasons, this is not the first time Hamas has suggested a deal involving the release of elderly and infirm prisoners as well as minor prisoners in their teens who were arrested for relatively minor crimes. A similar offer was made to Israel after the Shalit abduction in June 2006, but Prime Minister Ehud Olmert refused to make a deal with Hamas. What happened after that is well known. It took five years before Israel released 1,027 Hamas prisoners, many of them with blood on their hands, including Sinwar.
It is doubtful that any Israeli and Hamas feelers sent by way of Egypt will lead to a deal anytime soon. Even if Sinwar is talking about a trust-building exercise based on the release of prisoners on humanitarian grounds, Hamas cannot back down from major preconditions such as the release of major figures from Israeli prisons in order to impress the residents of Gaza.
Based on Sinwar’s public remarks, Hamas would make the deal conditional on a steady supply of medical equipment, especially ventilators. There are only about 70 ventilators in Gaza today, and some of them are already in use. On the other hand, given its own scarcity, Israel cannot afford to send a single one to Gaza, not even in exchange for the bodies of Goldin and Oron.
As the sovereign authority in the Gaza Strip, Hamas is responsible for the civilian population there. The group’s vast resources are too often invested in planning and manufacturing rockets. The sooner they are put to civilian use instead, to manufacture medical equipment that will benefit all the residents of Gaza, the better.