Prisoner exchange tops agenda in Hamas-Israel talks
GAZA - Hamas is open to “indirect and rapid” negotiations on a prisoner exchange following its bloody military escalation with Israel in May, the Palestinian militant group said Monday.
“There is now a real opportunity to move this file forward,” Yahya Sinwar said in response to an AFP query on a potential prisoner exchange.
“We are ready for indirect, urgent and rapid negotiations to conclude the case.”
The head of Hamas’ political wing in the Gaza Strip, a Palestinian enclave home to some two million people, delivered the statement on the sidelines of a visit by Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel.
Kamel has been working to solidify the ceasefire Cairo brokered between Israel and Hamas that went into effect on May 21, after 11 days of Palestinian militant rocket fire and Israeli air strikes.
The aerial bombardments on Gaza killed 254 Palestinians, including 66 children, health officials said.
Rockets and other fire from Gaza claimed 12 lives in Israel, including one child and an Arab-Israeli teenager, medics said.
A Hamas official, who requested anonymity, explained the Gaza talks focused on three points: turning the ceasefire into a longer-term truce, a prisoner exchange and the reconstruction of Gaza.
Sinwar said Hamas had “no objection” to talks on reconstruction and an end to Israel’s decade-long siege of Gaza “moving forward in parallel” with negotiations on a prisoner exchange.
“However, we categorically reject any link between these two aspects,” he added, without specifying how many prisoners could be released.
In Cairo on Sunday, Israeli foreign minister Gabi Ashkenazi raised the issue of two soldiers thought to be dead and two other Israelis believed to be detained in Gaza.
Since Israel’s 2014 invasion of the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian Islamist group has held the bodies of Israeli soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, although Hamas has never confirmed their deaths.
Hamas is also believed to be holding two Israeli citizens who entered Gaza alone and whose families say they have mental health issues.
Israel is meanwhile holding more than 5,000 Palestinians in its jails.
Egypt’s intelligence chief met Hamas leaders in Gaza on Monday to try to bolster a ceasefire between the Palestinian militant group and Israel and to discuss reconstruction plans following the recent hostilities, Egyptian and Palestinian officials said.
The visit was the first by an Egyptian intelligence chief to the enclave since the early 2000s.
“The discussion is focused on ways to cement the calm and Gaza reconstruction plans following the recent Israeli aggression,” said a Hamas official, who asked not to be named.
Hamas representatives, led by Gaza chief Yehya Al-Sinwar, would urge Cairo to pressure Israel to stop “its assaults against our people in Jerusalem and Sheikh Jarrah,” he said.
Eleven days of fighting between Israel and Hamas erupted on May 10 amid Palestinian anger at Israeli police raids around the al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem and plans to evict Palestinians from the Sheikh Jarrah district of the city to make way for Jewish settlers.
Large posters of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Egyptian flags decorated streets across the enclave to greet intelligence chief Abbas Kamel. Hundreds of people lined up outside the entrance to Gaza waving Egyptian flags as his motorcade drove by.
Kamel’s visit was seen as an effort by Cairo to regain a more vital role in mediation between Israel and Hamas and revive the stalled Israel-Palestinian peace process.
Sisi directed Egyptian officials to continue efforts and meetings to solve the problem of prisoners and missing people between Israel and Hamas, Egypt’s state news agency MENA reported on Sunday.
Following the meeting with Kamel in Gaza, Sinwar said “there is a real chance for progress to be made” on resolving the issue of prisoners, though he added that Hamas demanded those negotiations be held separately from the ceasefire talks.
Kamel was expected to announce plans by Cairo to fund a housing project in the territory, Hamas sources said. Egypt has said it would allocate $500 million to fund the rebuilding of devastated areas in Gaza.
From May 10 to May 21 the Gaza Strip suffered extensive damage, and international aid has started to pour in.
Gaza’s housing ministry said 1,500 housing units were completely destroyed during the fighting, another 1,500 housing units had been damaged beyond repair and 17,000 others suffered partial damage. A ministry official put the cost of rebuilding at $150 million.
On Sunday, Kamel met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem. Netanyahu said his meeting dealt with regional security issues and ways to prevent Hamas from siphoning off civilian aid to strengthen its capabilities.
Kamel also met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on Sunday and handed him a message from Sisi affirming Cairo’s support for Palestinians and Abbas, MENA said.
The latest conflict erupted on May 10 when Hamas sent volleys of rocket fire towards Israel in solidarity with hundreds of Palestinians injured in clashes with Israeli security forces inside Al-Aqsa mosque compound.
Qatar has also pledged $500 million for reconstruction.