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Israel offers new terms for prisoner exchange with Hamas

What happened: An Egyptian delegation visited Gaza last week to deliver new Israeli terms for a prisoner exchange deal with Hamas.

  • According to Maariv, Israel offered coronavirus aid and vaccines, as well as progress on major infrastructure projects. In addition to that, Israel is also prepared to release a larger selection of Palestinian security prisoners currently held in Israeli prisons.
  • Israeli officials stipulated that prisoners who were either directly or indirectly responsible for the murder of Israelis would not be included in any deal.
  • A senior Hamas source told the Lebanese-based al-Akhbar newspaper that for the first time Israel offered to release hundreds of Palestinians in exchange for Avera Mengistu and Hisham Al-Saye, two Israeli civilians who are being held in the Gaza Strip, along with the bodies of the dead soldiers, Lt. Hadar Goldin and Staff Sgt. Oron Shaul.
  • The source added that the Hamas leadership responded to the new Israeli terms by saying that they are “below expectations,” but agreed to continue to talk under Egyptian mediation. Meanwhile, Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem denied there was any progress on a prisoner swap, calling reports on the issue “Israeli electioneering”.
  • On Monday, in response to the reports, outgoing Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee Chairman MK Zvi Hauser (Derech Eretz), who is also the chairman of the subcommittee for hostages and MIA affairs, said the proposed prisoner exchange deal was “scandalous,” and called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to scrap it.
  • Hauser issued the following statement: “Last night some of the details of the deal to release terrorists that awaits us were published. In my professional capacity, I have been made privy to all of the details, and I must say clearly: this is a scandalous deal that violates the principles of the Shamgar reports and will restore hundreds of terrorists to the cycle of terrorism. I call on the prime minister to back away from that dangerous initiative and to draw the necessary conclusions from the Shalit deal, [in which] a majority of the people that were released in it reverted to terrorism.”

Context: Israeli security officials believe that a new political opportunity has emerged for a deal due to the steep rise in COVID-19 cases in the Gaza Strip and Hamas’ dependence on Israel to deliver much needed assistance.

  • There are currently 8,717 active cases of coronavirus in the Gaza Strip. Last month, Hamas’ leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, contracted COVID-19.
  • There is concern in Israel that releasing prisoners as part of an exchange deal endangers lives. In 2011, Israel released 1,027 Palestinian prisoners – about a third of whom were serving life sentences for terrorist attacks – in exchange for captive soldier Gilad Shalit. Many of those released were subsequently re-arrested for violence.
  • Hauser’s referral to the classified Shamgar Report, written in 2008, recommended that Israel free only a small number of prisoners per solider, and one body or living prisoner in exchange for a body.
  • Avera Mengistu an Israeli of Ethiopian descent and Hisham Al-Saye, an Israel-Bedouin crossed over in Gaza independently in 2014 and 2015 respectively, according to their families they both suffer from mental health issues disabilities. Lt. Hadar Goldin and Staff Sgt. Oron Shaul are thought to have been killed and their bodies captured during Operation Protective Edge in summer 2014, shortly after the ceasefire agreement came into effect that was violated by Hamas.
  • Renewed efforts to reach a deal come before the arrival of the new Biden administration to the White House next year, which has prompted a change in policy by the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank.
  • A new BICOM paper published yesterday explains the significant challenges facing the Palestinian leadership and details how the Palestinian Authority (PA) is adopting a new policy toward Israel in lieu of the incoming Biden administration.
  • The paper argues that the PA finds itself at a strategic crossroads, poised between two divergent and likely mutually exclusive options: Inter-Palestinian reconciliation on the one hand, and outreach towards the Biden administration on the other.
  • It has been one of the quietest years on the Gaza border in terms of rocket attacks. According to data from the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, there have been 193 rocket launches from Gaza in 2020, compared with 1,403 in 2019 and 1,119 in 2018.

Looking ahead: Progress between Israel and Hamas toward a prisoner exchange deal and possibly on a long-term truce could facilitate major international investment in infrastructure projects in the Gaza Strip. It would also signal a minimal chance for inter-Palestinian reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah.

  • With the prospect of an election in Israel, it remains unlikely that Netanyahu would be willing to pay the “political price” for a prisoner exchange deal with Hamas at the moment.

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