Photo: Flash90

Will Hamas ever return bodies of slain IDF soldiers?

Arab media outlets are reporting that a possible new prisoner exchange deal between Israel and Gaza is underway.

Lebanon’s Al-Akhbar newspaper reported today that the same German mediator who helped to broker the 2011 release of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit after 5 years of Hamas activity is now involved in securing a deal between the two sides. Al-Akhbar cited sources who said that Hamas considers its contacts with the German “very seriously,” and are currently “awaiting the response of the enemy government” (Israel).

Hamas has reportedly named 250 Palestinian prisoners it wants freed by Israel as the first step toward a future exchange for the remains of two IDF soldiers, Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, whose bodies were seized by enemy forces after they fell during the 2014 conflict with Gaza known as Operation Protective Edge.

Israel also seeks the release of two Israeli citizens, Avera Avraham Mengistu, who is of Ethiopian descent, and Bedouin Arab citizen Hisham al-Sayed; who are believed to held by Hamas after having entered Gaza of their own accord 2014-2015. The Lebanese paper characterized both civilians as “Israeli soldiers,” writing that “the resistance [Hamas] insists on dealing with the soldiers as a single entity, that includes four soldiers regardless of their origins, whether Western, Ethiopian or Arab, and the occupation’s [Israel’s] claim that they are civilians, as it has evidence that all those who have recruits in the enemy’s army, and therefore stresses that the price the soldiers have one, but rather have a “complete picture” of the price that the occupation must pay, which is the release of thousands of prisoners.”

Al-Akhbar reported that it “also learned” that Hamas has already prepared and submitted a list of the prisoners it wishes to be released, qualifying that the exchange with Israel only involves “information [emphasis added] about the fate of the soldiers.”

The London-based Al-Araby Al-Jadeed (meaning The New Arab) newspaper is reporting that sources linked to the Egyptian mediation team have revealed that it “has been instructed” by the Israeli government “to tell Hamas that its request for vulnerable prisoners to be released could be advanced if it discloses information on the status of the four Israelis currently held in the Gaza Strip.” The publication specified that terms of a prospective swap would be determined by Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a statement last week acknowledging a call “for immediate dialogue between mediators” to secure an exchange deal, and that Chief Israeli negotiator Yaron Blum is “committed to acting constructively with the aim of bringing back the soldiers’ bodies and missing civilians and putting an end to the issue,” in a cooperative effort with the National Security Council and defense officials.

Also last week, senior Hamas political bureau member Musa Dudin declared that Israel has a “window of opportunity” to facilitate an agreement before negotiations would return to “more difficult conditions.” He added that, “Israel knows what the demands are and that they should not be discussed in the media.”

Hamas leader Sinwar issued a recent demand that the swap be carried out as a “humanitarian” gesture to protect imprisoned Palestinians from the coronavirus outbreak in Israel.

There are 13 confirmed carriers of the novel coronavirus in Gaza, all of whom are reportedly under quarantine. While Hamas has closed schools, mosques, wedding halls and banned large street gatherings, the Islamist leaders have not imposed a lockdown, which they say is not yet necessary.

Overall in the Palestinian territories, Ramallah Spokesman Ibrahim Milhim said the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases has increased to 320, including 36 cases in “occupied Jerusalem.” There has only been one reported death from the disease.

Despite Hamas’ severe violation of international law with the holding of Israeli captives and the remains of the two slain IDF soldiers, Jerusalem continues to help Gaza battle the novel coronavirus. Following an announcement on 8 April that its supply of testing kits had run out, Israel allowed kits purchased by the World Health Organization (WHO) into the enclave that can used to test about 500 people. Gaza Health Ministry Spokesman Ashraf al-Qidra announced yesterday that testing was resumed “immediately after receiving the kits late (Sunday) night.”

Colonel Sharon Biton, of the Israeli Defense Ministry’s Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) liaison with the Palestinians, underscored Jerusalem”s cooperation with “representatives of the international community” to maintain public health in Gaza.

In addition to the testing kits, Israel has allowed a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machine into the coastal Strip which Qidra said had been donated by a U.S.-based charity, capable of detecting the coronavirus.

According to a press briefing statement by Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, the economy has been hard hit by restrictive measures to combat the threat of the disease, most particularly the tourism sector. After noting that “this global crisis did not destroy facilities as in regular wars,” he underscored that “reviving the economy is possible, but it needs time.”

Shtayyeh said that the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Social Development will “disburse aid with a budget of 137 million [no denoted currency, although presumably US dollars] to 116,000 families (an addition of ten thousand families), of which 81,000 are in the Gaza Strip.” He also said that “an austere emergency budget (with a deficit of $1.4 billion USD)” has been launched. The PA’s “economic recovery plan for small, medium and micro enterprises” will be assisted, “through a fund with an initial value of $300 million, which creates incentives for the most affected sectors through facilitated banking programs and with the support of Arab and Islamic funds,” he said.

“During the month of Ramadan,” which begins 23 April and concludes 23 May, the Palestinian Prime Minister said support will be provided to 30,000 workers who have lost their jobs.

Shtayyeh also revealed that “The European Union has responded to our request to transfer government projects worth 9.5 million Euros to Jerusalem hospitals, to serve our children in light of the spread of the pandemic. This payment will be followed by another payment of 16 million Euros. Today, we will receive medical assistance from friendly China and Chinese businessmen (including test swabs that we previously suffered from its shortage).”

Current measures the PA said it has taken includes the free treatment of anyone afflicted with the coronavirus, as well as “(i) Entry of goods between the governorates shall be allowed easily and conveniently, (ii) Particular attention shall be paid to agribusiness and livestock, (iii) Libraries, and stationery, laundry, and sewing shops, as well as electrical and health supply stores shall be opened on Fridays from 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM, during which grocery stores and supermarkets will be closed. Upon instructions from the Ministry of Health and National Economy, some of the factories that prove their ability to maintain the safety of their workers/employees shall be allowed to operate with the permission of the Governor and a recommendation from the Ministry of National Economy.”

Moreover, Shtayyeh said that “Transportation of goods, food, and agricultural products through the border crossings is allowed, as well as through ports, from inside the green line, and between governorates,” and that “We asked the Monetary Authority to address the issue of bounced checks as part of the mechanisms to ensure the protection of rights” – while stressing that “The current procedures should not be a tool to evade obligations.”

Other steps include “medical checkups” of the estimated “19 thousand Palestinian workers” who are permitted to remain overnight in Israel. Shtayyeh said the PA is “working with the other side” to conduct such tests either “there or upon their return, which implies dividing them in groups and though specific crossing points.” He said that “to organize this matter, we asked for a meeting between the Ministers of Health, Labor and Civil Affairs with the Israeli side.”