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Diana Alghoul

Israel considers sending ventilators to Gaza in exchange for release of soldiers held by Hamas

Gaza remains under siege during the coronavirus pandemic [AFP]

Date of publication: 7 April, 2020

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Israel and Hamas are considering a deal whereby Hamas will release four Israeli soldiers in exchange for vulnerable Palestinian prisoners and the supply of ventilators to Gaza
Israel will be sending ventilators to the Gaza Strip to deal with the coronavirus pandemic and will potentially negotiate a prisoner swap after Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar warned that “six million Israelis will not be able to breathe” if no aid was sent to the besieged Palestinian enclave.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday expressed willingness to enter into a prisoner exchange with Hamas, after weeks of speculation.

“The coordinator for captives and missing people Yaron Bloom and his staff, together with the National Security Council and the defence establishment are prepared to act constructively with a goal to return the bodies and missing people and end this matter, and call for an immediate discussion through intermediaries,” a statement from Netanyahu's office said.

On Monday, Israel announced that it was launching an initiative to provide Gaza with ventilators. 

An Israeli medical technology group, AID Genomics, said that it would work with the Copenhagen-based genomics company BGI to immediately set up an emergency lab for residents of Gaza.

The two companies plan on developing capacity to test 3,000 Gazans a day.

"In recent months, I have been working hard alongside the chairman of AID Genomics, Mr. Calvin Wu, to help a large number of countries in the world,” Nir Zeno, CEO of AID Genomics World Group said. 

Read More: Trapped between Israel's occupation and coronavirus: How are Palestinians coping with the pandemic?

“To my delight as an Israeli, our proposal, which included setting up one laboratory on the Israeli side and another on the Palestinian side, was approved by both the Palestinian side and in coordination with Israeli security forces."

This critical development came a couple of days after Sinwar's warning to Israel.

“As for the question about whether we need them to give us anything—we don’t need anything from the occupation,” Sinwar said on Sunday.

“But I say this loud and clear: God forbid, if a time comes when we have no choice but to watch our citizens breathe their final breaths, and when there are no ventilators—I say to [Israeli Defence Minister Naftali] Bennett that we will make six million Israeli settlers unable to breathe.” 

Nearly 2 million Gazans has been under Israeli siege since 2007, with extremely limited access to necessities such as healthcare, water and food.

Fear of outbreak in prisons

On 1 April, Israeli Defence Minister Naftali Bennett said that Israel will only help Gaza deal with the coronavirus pandemic if Hamas returned two soldiers who went missing during the 2014 Israeli war on Gaza to Israeli

Last Wednesday, Gaza’s Islamic Jihad Movement urged the international community to pressure Israel to release Palestinian prisoners, for fear of the deadly disease spreading inside overcrowded prisons.

Yousuf al-Hasayna, a member of Islamic Jihad's political bureau, said in a statement: “Despite the COVID-19 outbreak, the world and the international community still turn a blind eye to the worst crimes against humanity, such as the arrests of Arabs and Palestinians, medical negligence, torture and sham trials against them.”

Read more: Coronavirus under occupation - Palestinian detainees in Israeli jails fear the worst

On Friday, Sinwar hinted at a potential prisoner deal, if Israel agrees to release female, elderly and vulnerable Palestinian prisoners.

“We are ready to make partial concessions on the prisoners issue in exchange for Israel's release of elderly prisoners, patients and female prisoners as a humanitarian gesture in light of the coronavirus crisis," he said.

Hamas holds four Israelis in captivity. Two soldiers, Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, have been held in Gaza since the 2014 war and two civilians, Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, who entered the besieged Palestinian enclave in 2014 and 2015 are believed to be held by Hamas.

Israel currently holds around 5,700 Palestinian prisoners, including 200 children, 44 women, five members of the Palestinian Legislative Council, and 27 journalists.  470 Palestinian prisoners are held in "administrative detention" without charge or trial.

Both Israel and the Palestinians fear the consequences of prisoners contracting coronavirus .

Israel neglecting Palestinian health

During the coronavirus pandemic, Israel has been under fire for its treatment of Palestinians living in Gaza, the occupied West Bank and within Israel.

Palestinians in the West Bank have complained of Israeli soldiers stealing aid meant for the needy and not giving enough aid to Palestinians in Area C, where Israel is in full military and administrative control.

There were instances where settlers had deliberately tried to infect Palestinians with coronavirus by coughing and spitting on their property.

Palestinian citizens of Israel were also heavily disadvantaged in the early testing of coronavirus, with many complaining that nearly all coronavirus tests were taking place in Israel’s Jewish areas, neglecting Arab towns and villages.

Palestinian citizens of Israel are also unable to readily access information about the coronavirus, because the advice is published primarily in the Hebrew language.

Although there are no overt laws denying Palestinian citizens equal access to healthcare, social, legal and political discrimination against them is systematic within Israel. 

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