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Israel-Hamas contacts advance on prisoner exchange

Contradicting reports have emerged about talks for an Israel-Hamas prisoner-exchange deal after an Egyptian delegation visited Gaza last week.
A masked Hamas militant mans a machine gun as he stands with others in the back of a pickup truck during a celebration of the release of Abdel Halim Badawi (unseen), a Palestinian who was held for 18 years in an Israeli prison after he was convicted of being a member of Hamas' armed wing in 2001, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on October 17, 2019. (Photo by SAID KHATIB / AFP) (Photo by SAID KHATIB/AFP via Getty Images)

The Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar reported this morning that Israel proposed a deal in which Israel would release hundreds of security prisoners in exchange for returning of bodies of two IDF soldiers and releasing Israeli civilians held by the group for five years now. The newspaper claimed that the offer was made to Hamas last week through an Egyptian delegation that visited the Gaza Strip. Jerusalem did not confirm the report, which contradicts reports by the Israeli press and earlier declarations by Israeli officials.

Channel 13 and Ynet reported Dec. 11 that Israel offered Hamas increased assistance with the coronavirus pandemic in exchange for the two IDF soldiers' bodies and the captive Israeli civilians. The reports cited Israeli officials as saying that Jerusalem has identified an opportunity for an exchange deal due to the coronavirus crisis in the Hamas-ruled Strip. Israel is reportedly prepared to assist with Gaza’s health crisis but refuses to release Palestinian prisoners who have committed violence against Israelis.

Senior Palestinian sources told the Kan radio station on Dec. 13 that Hamas has been compiling a list of security prisoners to demand be released from Israeli prisons in an exchange. The report claimed that the list is not yet finalized and was thus not submitted to the Egyptian mediators who visited Gaza last week. It also said that Hamas sees the gap between its demands and Israel's as currently too wide to bridge. Other reports insisted that Hamas did express to the Egyptians its demands, which include choosing the Palestinian prisoners to be released without preconditions by Israel.

The report come just days after the visit to Gaza by the Egyptian delegation, which has been mediating between Israel and Hamas for several months. The delegation apparently entered the Strip through the Beit Hanoun crossing, which is under Israeli control, and spent a few hours in the Strip. The talks reportedly focused on a possible reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas as well as a possible prisoner swap with Israel. The Israeli press reported a similar Egyptian visit last September.

The head of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Zvi Hauser, slammed the reports on contacts between Israel and Hamas. “Parts of an expected deal for the release of Palestinian prisoners were published yesterday. As part of my position, I was exposed to all the details, and I must say clearly: This is an outrageous deal that violates the principles of the Shamgar report [on negotiations on prisoner-exchange deals] and that would put hundreds of terrorists back in the cycle of terror. I call on the prime minister to withdraw from this dangerous move and draw the obvious conclusions from the [2011 Gilad] Shalit deal, in which most of the Palestinians released have returned to terrorism,” Hauser tweeted Dec. 14.

A delegation of Israeli doctors entered the Gaza Strip Dec. 3 to provide free treatment for hundreds of Gaza residents infected by the coronavirus and other patients. The delegation was organized by the Israeli nongovernmental organization Physicians for Human Rights and was the first of its kind from Israel to the Strip since pandemic began nine months ago. Reports say that the pandemic is again spreading in Gaza, and it is not clear yet how, when and through what financing vaccinations will arrive there.

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