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Israeli activist in Gaza to revive prisoners file

In a rare move, Hamas allowed an Israeli activist to enter Gaza for talks with the movement’s leaders on the possibility of reaching a prisoner swap deal after Hamas’ military wing posted a video clip of one of its Israeli prisoners lying sick in a hospital bed.
Palestinians celebrate the release of hundreds of prisoners following a swap with captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit on October 18, 2011, in Gaza City.

For the first time since taking control of the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2007, Hamas consented to Israel’s request that an Israeli figure enter the coastal enclave for talks with its leaders on the possibility of reaching a prisoner swap deal, after such talks had been stalled for eight months. 

Hamas' move came after its military wing, Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, posted a video on June 28 of Hisham al-Sayed, an Israeli citizen held prisoner inside Gaza, in which he is seen lying in a hospital bed and connected to a ventilator. 

The video seemed to be an attempt by Hamas to send a message to the Israeli community and mobilize the families of the Israeli soldiers who are detained by the movement (who Israel says are dead). It also seemed to convey a message that Sayed, who already suffers from mental health issues, may die because his health condition has deteriorated due to Israel’s incompetency in dealing with this file. It seems also aimed at pressuring Israeli society to take serious actions to save him.

On June 29, the Israeli channel Kan reported that Hamas has agreed to let an Israeli activist into Gaza in an attempt to start contacts on a potential prisoner swap deal. According to Kan, Israeli left-wing activist Yoel Marshak has been working for years on promoting a civil initiative to resolve the prisoners and disappeared dossier. The latter was granted permission to enter Gaza and open a channel to direct dialogue in a bid to push the file forward, Kan reported.

Meanwhile, Hamas has been deploying strenuous efforts for years to reach a prisoner swap deal with Israel amid the latter’s categorical rejection to conclude a new deal due to demands that the Israeli security agency describe as “unreasonable.” Hamas has demanded that Israel free Palestinian figures sentenced to life in exchange for the release of the Israeli prisoners held in Gaza.

Hamas is detaining four Israeli captives, including soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, who were captured during Israel’s war on Gaza in the summer of 2014 and whom Israel claims were killed. Among the four captives are two civilians: Sayed, an Israeli Arab who hails from the Negev area, and Avraham Avera Mengistu, who was born in Ethiopia and immigrated to Israel. The two citizens had accidentally crossed into Gaza through the separation fence and were arrested.

Since their detention, Arab, particularly Egyptian, efforts have been deployed to revive the prisoner swap deal. But all mediation efforts have so far failed due to high stakes at the negotiations table and Israel’s apparent neglect of the fate of the two Arab and Ethiopian citizens. Hamas also claims that Israel is trying to mislead the soldiers’ families by claiming they were killed.

Israel has refused to deal with the issue of its prisoners inside Gaza to avoid a similar scenario to the one that took place in 2011, under which Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was released in exchange for 1,114 Palestinian prisoners. Meanwhile, Hamas accuses Israel of trying to mislead Israeli public opinion regarding the four prisoners by claiming that the two soldiers (Shaul and Goldin) were killed in the war and are not alive. But Hamas maintains that they are still alive.

Given Israel’s unwillingness to push forward the file and Hamas’ desire to mobilize Israeli public opinion, especially the families of missing Israelis, Hamas has repeatedly sent messages about the two Israeli soldiers. 

In 2016, the movement released a video showing one of the Israeli soldiers in a wheelchair on his birthday. Hamas had also claimed that one of the two soldiers was wounded during the Israeli war on Gaza in May 2021. Yet all of these leaks, indications and insinuations did not result in reviving the file among Israeli authorities.

Meanwhile, none of the Palestinian armed resistance factions, specifically Hamas, revealed what happened during Marshak’s visit to the Gaza Strip. A source close to Hamas refused to give any details to Al-Monitor about the visit. 

However, it seems that the prisoners’ file has once again stalled in light of the Israeli transitional government’s inability to decide on a deal now.

Ismat Mansour, a Ramallah-based expert on Israeli affairs, told Al-Monitor that Hamas, by granting the Israeli activist permission to hold direct talks with the movement’s officials in the prisoners’ file, has shown that it is serious and willing to cease every opportunity to revive the file. 

Hamas has a great interest in that because any new deal will result in boosting its popularity, especially since its leaders had pledged to conclude this deal, he added.

Mansour believes that Israel is not currently enthusiastic about concluding any exchange deal with Hamas because any deal, whatever the price, will cause controversy and criticism within Israeli society, and none of the politicians want to be part of a deal that would affect their political and electoral future.

He further said that Hamas is trying to take advantage of the political uncertainty in Israel to show Israeli society that the authorities are ignoring their soldiers held captive in Israel, particularly after Israeli politicians tried to convince the community and the families that the prisoners were dead.

Maj. Gen. Yousef al-Sharqawi, a retired brigadier general in the Palestinian security services and an expert on Palestinian security affairs, told Al-Monitor that the Egyptian mediation is not strong enough and is unable to achieve a breakthrough in the prisoners’ file. That is why Hamas tried to change its tactics by posting videos about the Israeli captives in a bid to revive the file, he added. The arrival of the activist may be a sign that it has succeeded in doing so, he said.

Sharqawi expects this file to come to the forefront again and Israel to push it forward, especially in light of Hamas’ ongoing transgressions of the borders, the Israeli families’ efforts to push for a swap deal, and the Israeli security agency’s fear that Hamas could make additional achievements and force Israel to pay a heavy price.

Shortly after posting the video on Sayed, Hamas reportedly made a proposal to the mediators in the prisoner file to offer a humanitarian initiative involving the release of the Israeli prisoner in exchange for Israel freeing all sick Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails. Israel has yet to comment on this initiative.