Monday,11 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1256, (30 July - 5 August 2015)
Monday,11 December, 2017
Issue 1256, (30 July - 5 August 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Nail biting between Hamas and Israel

Signs suggest that another prisoners exchange deal may be on the cards between Tel Aviv and Hamas, possibly linked to halting the siege, writes Ahmed Al-Sayed in Gaza

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Since the end of the war on Gaza last summer, another battle has been underway, sometimes in public and at other times discreetly. Namely, a battle of “nail biting” between Israel’s occupation forces and the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) about missing Israeli persons and prisoners held by Hamas.

Hamas is very secretive about Israeli prisoners in Gaza and does not release any details about them or their numbers, similar to the tactics of Lebanon’s Hizbullah. It states that any information about them comes at a price that Israel must pay, in the hope of striking a large prisoner exchange deal, similar to the one in October 2011.

Khaled Meshaal, the chief of Hamas’s politburo, told the press recently that Tel Aviv asked Hamas through an unidentified European mediator to release two soldiers and two bodies in its possession since Israel’s war on the Gaza Strip last summer.

The group asserts it will not make any prisoner exchange deals with occupation forces until the latter adheres to previous agreements. It preconditions releasing any information about missing Israelis in the Gaza Strip to the release of liberated prisoners in the Shalit deal, which the group calls “Pledge of the Free”. These Palestinians were re-arrested by Israel after three settlers were kidnapped and killed in Hebron in the southern region of the West Bank in June 2014.

Mahmoud Zahar, member of Hamas’s politburo, told the press: “We will not talk about the missing Israelis in Gaza. This is a sealed topic. We will only release information on the condition that the prisoners who were released in the Shalit deal are set free.” Zahar, a hardliner, added: “The occupation must abide by previous agreements before we talk about any prisoners or missing. We will not respond or comment. For us, the topic is sealed and there will not be any discussion or negotiation before they meet this condition.”

According to the Prisoners and Freed Detainees Affairs Authority (formerly Prisoners Ministry), the Israeli authorities arrested 70 who were released in the Shalit deal and reapplied sentences against 50 of them, including stiff sentences and life imprisonment. Another four were given lighter sentences than before.

On 18 October 2011, Israel and Hamas signed a prisoner exchange deal under Egyptian auspices whereby 1,027 Palestinian prisoners were released in return for the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit who was captured in June 2006.

Observers of Palestinian affairs believe that both sides have started a countdown to making another exchange deal, even if indirectly. Meshaal revealed that several parties have contacted Hamas to ask for the release of two Israeli prisoners and two dead Israelis located in the Gaza Strip. Observers note the appointment of Hamas leader Yehia Al-Sinwar to be in charge of Israeli prisoners held by Al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s military wing, and the appointment by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu of reserve Colonel Lior Lotan to head talks on Israeli prisoners.

Hamas sources said that Sinwar, a former prisoner who after his release in the Shalit deal briefly served as adviser to deputy politburo chief Ismail Haniyeh, will lead any negotiations that may take place soon on an exchange of prisoners. The sources added that, “Sinwar will be joined by released prisoner and politburo member Rawhi Moshtaha, who is also responsible for prisoner and detainee matters. They will also be working with leading figure and liberated prisoner Saleh Al-Arouri, who resides in Turkey.”

The source continued that the leaders of the Qassam Brigades chose Sinwar to lead the team on Israeli prisoners because it has great confidence in him, especially since he is a leader known for being stubborn, tenacious and stern. This became clear during communications to reach a truce during the last confrontations.

During Israel’s war on Gaza last summer, the Qassam Brigades said it captured Israeli soldier Shaul Aron during a ground incursion by the Israeli army in the east of Gaza City. Israel accuses Hamas of keeping the body of another soldier, Hadar Goldin, who was killed during clashes in eastern Rafah City on 1 August 2014. Hamas has not denied or confirmed this claim.

The Israeli army revealed 9 July that Hamas has two new prisoners who are said to have entered the Gaza Strip by mistake after the end of the war. General Yoav Mordechai, coordinator of Israeli Government Activities in the Palestinian Territories, said that Avraham Mangisto, an Israeli citizen of Ethiopian origin born in 1986 who lives in the coastal city of Ashkelon (25 kilometres from the Gaza Strip), voluntarily penetrated the security fence surrounding the Gaza Strip on 7 September 2014 (about two weeks after the end of the war). According to available information, he is being held by Hamas. Mordechai added that the second prisoner is an Israeli of Arab origin from the Bedouin town of Houra in Naqab (South Israel) and is “psychologically disturbed”. He crossed the border three months ago.

As soon as Israeli military censors unsealed information about these two missing people after months of silence there was an Israeli media blitz about the captures and angry reactions by Israeli officials about the release of the information. Former and incumbent members of Netanyahu’s government, as well as former and sitting Knesset members said they did not know Israelis had disappeared, and heard about it in the news like everyone else.

“I was surprised when I heard about this case, even though I was foreign minister and member of the cabinet for political and security affairs, and participated in top secret discussions,” stated Avigdor Lieberman, former foreign minister and head of the radical right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu Party. “I think this shows that we have not learned lessons from the past.”

Yitzhak “Tzachi” Hanegbi, chairman of the Knesset’s Security and Foreign Affairs Committee, said he too was surprised at what he heard in the media, describing it as “very odd” and that he was not informed about the issue before. Hanegbi mocked: “Maybe tourism in Gaza is so wonderful that the two men decided to emigrate there. It is very important to understand why they did this.”

Analysts believe the timing of Israel’s announcement about the two new missing people is linked to moves towards negotiating with Hamas, either directly or indirectly. It also primes Israeli public opinion for exchanging the missing people for Palestinian prisoners.

Saleh Al-Naami, an expert on Israeli affairs, believes it is unlikely that Netanyahu’s government will comply by Knesset laws that prohibit the release of Palestinian prisoners in return for Israeli prisoners. “Netanyahu knows he cannot abide by this law because it would risk an outbreak of mass protests,” stated Al-Naami. “He knows more than anyone else that since one of the detainees is Jewish of Ethiopian origin, his ability to contain the situation is very difficult. The announcement of the capture came shortly after wide protests by Jews of Ethiopian origin against racist policies against them by the government.”

About one year ago, the Knesset passed a law prohibiting the release of Palestinian prisoners with stiff sentences or reducing their sentences as part of political or prisoner exchange deals. “Netanyahu’s visit to the family home of the Ethiopian Mangisto was to reassure them that he will do everything possible to ensure his release, as a first step on the path to a prisoner exchange deal with Hamas,” according to Al-Naami.

He continued that statements by Israeli officials about not releasing Palestinian prisoners in return for the two prisoners indicates the matter will be merged into a bigger deal, including alleviating the siege on the Gaza Strip in order to reduce the price that Israel would pay in return for the release of the two prisoners.

There are some 6,000 Palestinian prisoners in about 20 Israeli prisons, detention centres, police stations and interrogation offices, according to the Prisoners and Freed Detainees Affairs Authority. They include 480 prisoners sentenced to one or more life sentences, 24 female prisoners, 200 children below the age of 18, 480 detained without charge, 14 members of the Palestinian parliament, and a former minister.

Al-Naami believes that Israel’s attempt to minimise the importance of the captured Ethiopian and Bedouin, portraying them as mere civilians who were lost, is a tactic to reduce the price it has to pay for their release. “Time is not in Netanyahu’s favour, and the resistance Hamas must have nerves of steel and not acknowledge Israel’s strategy to reduce the price they must pay.”

The Hebrew newspaper Makor Rishon reported that German intelligence probed Hamas about mediating the release of the two prisoners and bodies of two soldiers whom Israel says were killed during the war. In a report published 10 July, the newspaper said the Germans want to reach a new prisoner exchange deal with Hamas. It reminded that German Intelligence also played a key role in the Shalit deal, when German intelligence officers visited both Gaza and Tel Aviv to negotiate the deal.

The Hebrew media reported that former Quartet envoy Tony Blair is also involved in negotiations between Israel and Hamas to find out what happened to the Israelis detained by the group. Reports stated that Blair met officially with Hamas leaders to discuss this matter and attempt to reach a solution.

The prisoner issue has become part of the raging rivalry in Israel’s political arena. On 20 July, Knesset Member Nissan Slomiansky from Yisrael Beiteinu proposed new legislation to increase the sentences against prisoners released in the Shalit exchange who were re-arrested on charges of plotting attacks against Israel. Slomiansky argued that in the last prisoner exchange, when thousands of Palestinians were released, they returned to what he described as “terrorist activities” against Israel.

Meanwhile, the leader of Yesh Atid (There is a Future) Party and former finance minister, Yair Lapid, proposed legislation in the Knesset for a general outline for future exchange deals.

Israeli television’s Channel 10 reported that one year after soldiers Goldin and Aron were kidnapped, and Mongisto and a Bedouin citizen disappeared in Gaza, there are ongoing efforts to pass “very strict” legislation presented by Lapid and written by opposition members from the Security and Foreign Affairs Committee. It added that the draft legislation stipulates that Israel can only exchange the same number of prisoners in return for Israeli captives. This means “Israel would release only one saboteur (detainee) in return for any soldier who is captured by the resistance”. Also, that within 72 hours of the kidnapping of any Israeli soldier, prison conditions would be stiffened against Palestinian detainees from the faction responsible for the kidnapping.

The draft also prohibits the release of any Palestinian prisoners in return for Israeli bodies, and that Tel Aviv cannot release more than 10 Palestinians as part of any “goodwill” overture to the Palestinian Authority (PA).

Channel 10’s website said that “despite support from most cabinet members for the draft legislation, it is unlikely it will pass because Netanyahu will oppose it in order not to tie his hands in future negotiations.”

The website of Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper said that this was not the first time that Israel said it will not make prisoner exchange deals or release “saboteurs”, but then changes its mind from generalities to specifics and says it will not release “saboteurs whose hands are covered in blood”. The site added that the long history of the Palestinian-Israeli and Arab-Israeli conflict indicates otherwise. Israel made four prisoner exchange deals over the past 30 years, according to official Israeli documentation, and they all included the release of prisoners and “saboteurs” as Israel describes them without any preconditions, and many of them “have blood on their hands” according to Israel.

The website added that “history contradicts official Israeli statements” and “saboteurs” and Palestinian prisoners and bodies in Israel’s possession were handed over and transported to the PA, Hamas and Hizbullah. “When we look at the possibility of these deals recurring, we find that only one thing has changed, namely legislation approved by the previous Knesset that was proposed by incumbent Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked from the right-wing Jewish Home Party. The bill prevents prisoner exchange deals that include the release of “killers”, according to the text of this law.

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