Hamas vs Israel: Nail-biting diplomacy

Mohamed Abu Shaar , Monday 16 Aug 2021

In the current Hamas and Israel standoff who will blink first

Nail-biting diplomacy

It has been seven years since four Israelis were captured in the Gaza Strip, including two soldiers taken during operations by Al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, during Israel’s 2014 war on Gaza. Tough negotiations sponsored by Egypt to reach a prisoner exchange deal continue.

What makes this deal even more elusive is the gaping difference between Hamas’s demands and Israel’s perspective, the current political and security climate on the two sides, and the fact that each is putting as much pressure on the other.

Since the end of Israel’s most recent war on Gaza in May, Israel has asserted a condition to which it often alluded but has never stipulated, namely that progress in the prisoner exchange deal and the return of Israeli prisoners is a prerequisite for allowing the reconstruction of damaged infrastructure in Gaza.

Since the end of that war, Israel has tightened its siege on Gaza to increase pressure on Hamas, in power in the Gaza Strip, to agree to this condition. Meanwhile, Hamas insists on its own terms that de-escalation, ceasefire and reconstruction of Gaza are issues that should be discussed separately from the captured soldiers and a prisoner exchange deal.

An Israeli negotiating team came to Cairo more than three times in two months to discuss a prisoner exchange deal, according to the Israeli Broadcast Corporation. Israel’s Channel 12 News recently revealed that Hamas made a new offer of a prisoner exchange in two phases. First, the release of two Israeli civilian prisoners, Avera Mengistu and Hisham El-Sayed, followed by the two soldiers Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul (whom Israel believes are dead; Hamas will not show proof of life until the first phase is complete). The second phase will include talks on the return of the missing soldiers in exchange for Palestinian security prisoners, including key Fatah figure Marwan Barghouti. Hamas is also demanding the release of 800 Palestinian prisoners and all 300 Palestinian female prisoners, in exchange.

After Israeli media leaked the alleged offer by Hamas, a member of Hamas’s politburo accused Israel of procrastinating with mediators on reaching a prisoner exchange deal. He accused the Israeli government of refusing to work with international mediators and rejecting suggestions by international players.

“There has been no progress on the issue of Israeli soldiers held in Gaza in recent months,” the politician said, reiterating a previous declaration by the group:: “The deal will be made when Israel is ready to pay the price for the freedom of its captured soldiers in the Gaza Strip.”

Repeated accusations on both sides are met with media pressure to embarrass the other side. A month ago, Hamas made a television broadcast of an audio recording of one of the prisoners it is holding without identifying who it was. This increased pressure by the families of captive Israelis on the Israeli government to bring their sons home.

The Al-Qassam Brigades released a statement on the anniversary of the capture of Goldin on the outskirts of Rafah in southern Gaza, stating that the Israeli government will not receive a morsel of information about the life or fate of its soldiers until it pays the price. The statement continued, “After seven years of Israeli war on Gaza, and the data concealed in its black box of information, the Israeli side remains confused and is trying to use intelligence techniques to find out about its soldiers in Gaza.”

Palestinian and Israeli analysts believe that pressure on both sides will result in everyone agreeing that a deal must be made; each side is trying to buy as much time as possible in order to be in a better position to impose its vision.

In Israel, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett wants to make progress on the issue, but is worried about widespread criticism of his fragile cabinet should he release a large number of Palestinian prisoners in Israel, especially those Israel describes as having “blood on their hands”, in reference to prisoners who participated in operations that killed Israelis.

Although experts on Israeli affairs believe a prisoner exchange deal was more likely when Binyamin Netanyahu was in power, they agree that Bennett is invested in striking a deal.

On the Palestinian side, Hamas has a clear vision that a prisoner exchange would greatly boost its popularity on the Palestinian street, which is disconcerting for Israel. At the same time, Hamas is worried about compromising on the conditions it made and declared in the media as parametres for a new prisoner exchange deal, most notably the release of all prisoners who were part of the Egypt-brokered deal to release Gilad Shalit in 2011. Israel released 1,050 Palestinians in exchange for Shalit but then turned around and rearrested some of them after their release.

Mustafa Al-Sawwaf, a political analyst, said signs indicate that the viewpoints of Israel, Egypt and the Gaza Strip on a prisoner exchange within the next few months are converging. Sawwaf noted however that this progress is moving very slowly right now due to Israel rejecting Hamas’s demands and trying to impose its own formula on the deal. He said the conditions both sides want to impose are complicating the role of the Egyptian mediators.

“Right now, progress that would lead to an exchange deal between the two sides through Egyptian mediation is not apace,” he said. “Especially with Hamas’s demand to release prisoners who were recaptured after the Shalit deal, which is a crippling condition for Israel.”

Sawwaf noted Egypt’s critical role in bringing together Palestinian and Israeli viewpoints. “Egypt is exerting an exceptional effort on this front. No other country could play this role or have such influence on Hamas and the Israeli government,” he asserted, due to Egypt’s strategic relations with each side.

“Egypt is trying to make progress on this issue, despite Israel’s attempts to take advantage of Egypt’s role to achieve gains,” he explained. He also noted that the change of government in Israel may have negatively impacted the possibility of reaching a prisoner exchange deal.

Despite diverging views on the likelihood that a deal will be made, the ambiguity and secrecy of all involved and the lack of accurate information about the course of negotiations, make it likely there could be surprise and rapid progress. The same occurred in the previous prisoner exchange agreement, known as the Shalit deal.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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