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Ben Lynfield

Time running out for Hamas-Israel prisoner swap deal as annexation looms

A prisoner exchange deal could pave the way for broader ceasefire measures. [Getty]

Date of publication: 8 May, 2020

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A narrow window remains for progress in prisoner exchange talks as Israel's impending annexation of the West Bank threatens to scupper the deal.
As the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread death and disease across the globe, a silver lining may be emerging in Gaza and Israel, where cooperation against Covid-19 has raised hopes of a breakthrough prisoner exchange deal.

Israeli media reports this week said the two sides are not close to an agreement. But the picture emerging from analysts on both sides, and a senior Hamas leader, is that a pact, which would be brokered largely by Egypt, is a distinct possibility.

"I would say the chances are fifty-fifty," Mkhaimar Abusada, a political scientist at Al-Azhar University in Gaza City, told The New Arab.

Kobi Michael, senior analyst at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies, said it is "reasonable and possible" that a deal will be struck.

"There are still gaps but I think both sides are willing to make concessions. Under the atmosphere of corona[virus] there is a higher possibility of such an agreement."

If, and it is a big if, an agreement on the prisoners is reached, it could pave the way for a broader agreement in which Israel eases its strictures that stymie Gaza's economy and Hamas guarantees border tranquillity for the Israelis. That would positively impact on life in both Gaza and Israel.

The picture emerging from analysts on both sides is that a pact, which would be brokered largely by Egypt, is a distinct possibility

Over more than a decade the two sides have fought three wars in which Israeli bombardments and incursions have relentlessly ravaged the densely inhabited coastal enclave and Hamas rocket fire has disrupted life in southern Israel and even reached the Tel Aviv area

Since the coronavirus outbreak, however, the two sides have cooperated to stem its spread in Gaza, with Israel enabling the delivery of medical supplies to the besieged territory. Recently, Israeli doctors even advised a visiting delegation of Gaza medical personnel on how to treat Covid-19, something unthinkable before, according to Michael. Hamas, for its part, has kept the border quiet.

Read more: The failed dethroning of Netanyahu: Benny Gantz's betrayal has secured Israel's right-wing future

At stake in whether an agreement is reached are the futures of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, including those described by Israel as having "blood on their hands", such as Hasan Salameh and Abdullah Barghouthi, who masterminded suicide bombings. 

Israel set a precedent for such releases in 2011 when it swapped more than a thousand prisoners for the return of a captured soldier, Gilad Shalit.

Read more: The day after annexation: Israel, Palestine and the one-state reality

Now Israel wants the return of two civilians held by Hamas, one of whom, Avra Mengistu, is mentally ill and wandered across the border from southern Israel. The other is a Bedouin Arab-Israeli citizen, Hisham al-Sayed. Israel also seeks the return of the remains of two soldiers, Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul.

If an agreement is reached, its origins will be traced back to an interview Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar gave to Al-Aqsa TV on 2 April, in which he said that because of Covid-19 there could be a chance for a "humanitarian" initiative in which Israel would release old and sick prisoners and Hamas would reciprocate in some form.

Read more: Israel's coronavirus coup: Netanyahu's tightening grip on power bodes badly for Palestinians

Israel took an interest in this, with the government issuing a statement that Israeli personnel "are committed to work constructively with the aim of bringing home the two missing civilians and the bodies of the soldiers."

Senior Hamas leader Ghazi Hamed told The New Arab during an interview on Friday that it will be hard to reach a deal. "The gaps are big and not easy to bridge. The Shalit deal took five years."

But asked if an agreement would actually materialise, Hamed said: "Maybe sooner or later. I think so but it depends on the position of the Israeli side. They need more flexibility; they need to give concessions and be able to release prisoners."

If this deal isn't concluded by 1 July, annexation of the Jordan Valley will complicate things. It will be hard for Hamas to digest. Time is running out

Hamed said a prisoner swap will not lead to a wider rapprochement. "There is no connection. It's a separate issue. Israel is still trying to destroy the Palestinian dreams and to punish the Palestinians."

Nor would a change in the configuration of Israel's government, at present the most right-wing in the country's history, necessarily improve relations, Hamed stated. "Gantz and Netanyahu have a common view towards the Palestinians."

Hamed added that Hamas would not negotiate directly with Israel, only through a third party. Russia and Switzerland have been mentioned as mediators, but Egypt is believed to hold the key in that regard.

In the view of Abusada, there may be only a narrow window of seven weeks to strike the deal. This is because Israel is planning to formally and illegally annex parts of the occupied West Bank in July, something that will outrage Palestinians and make it difficult for Hamas to move forward.

"If this deal isn't concluded by 1 July annexation of the Jordan Valley will complicate things. It will be hard for Hamas to digest. Time is running out," Abusada said.

Ben Lynfield is a journalist currently based in Jerusalem.

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