Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Newly elected Hamas politburo chief Ismail Haniyeh on Wednesday suggested that Hamas is close to reaching a prisoner swap deal with Israel, in his first major speech since assuming the position.
“Their [Palestinian prisoners] liberation has become closer than any time in the past,” said Haniyeh, who resides in the Gaza Strip’s Shati refugee camp, speaking before a number of Gaza-based Hamas leaders.
Channel 11 reported last week that Hamas and Israel are negotiating a prisoner swap through an unnamed third party.
Hamas and Israel carried out a prisoner swap in 2011, in which Israel freed some 1,200 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for former IDF tankgunner Gilad Schalit, who had been in Hamas’s captivity.
Hamas is believed to be holding the remains of two Israeli soldiers in addition to three living civilians.
Haniyeh also said that the West Bank will remain a main arena of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“We say very clearly that the West Bank will remain a center of the conflict and an address for uprising and resistance in all of its forms.”
He added that Hamas is committed to “supporting the steadfastness of [the Palestinian] people in confronting the enemy’s plans... and resistance that makes the enemy pay a high price for its occupation.”
Hamas operates in the West Bank, but the Palestinian Authority and Israel undermine much of its activities, especially in terms of violence. Many of Hamas’s operatives and leaders sit in PA and Israeli jails.
Turning to the situation in the Gaza Strip, Haniyeh confirmed that Hamas Gaza chief Yahiya Sinwar had successful meetings with other Palestinian leaders in Egypt at the beginning of June, likely referring to self-exiled Fatah leader Muhammad Dahlan.
“He [Sinwar] held Palestinian-Palestinian meetings, which yielded understandings that will have a positive impact on the lives of our people in Gaza,” said Haniyeh.
Sinwar and Dahlan met in Cairo a number of times in the first half of June, according to multiple Hamas and Dahlan-related officials.
While Haniyeh did not clarify which understandings were reached, Dahlan confidante Sufian Abu Zaida said last Thursday that the leaders agreed to address the humanitarian situation in Gaza.
Hamas leader Ahmad Yousif on Monday told the Jordanian daily al-Ghad that it was agreed to form an “administrative committee” in Gaza comprised of Hamas officials, Dahlanists and other Palestinian factions.
Over the past several days, Fatah officials have expressed disbelief about reports and statements that Egypt allowed Hamas and Dahlan to reach understandings on its soil.
Fatah Central Committee member Jamal Muhaisen told The Jerusalem Post that PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi would discuss the issue in a meeting in Cairo on Sunday.
“We are not going to trust media reports,” Muhaisen said. “We want to hear directly from the Egyptian president.”
Abbas considers Dahlan a rival and has made multiple attempts to isolate him from the Palestinian political scene over the past several years. In 2016, Arab states, which maintain close ties with Dahlan, tried to force Abbas to reconcile with Dahlan, but the PA president rebuffed the attempts.
In the latter half of his speech, which lasted well over an hour, Haniyeh called on the Gulf states to resolve their differences.
“We call on the brothers in the Gulf states... to deal with their disputes in dialogue,” Haniyeh said. “We, Hamas, support all the efforts to end the tension.”
A coalition of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have been at loggerheads with Qatar over the past month. The coalition has accused Qatar of maintaining close ties with Iran and funding extremist groups.
Hamas, which relies heavily on Qatar’s financial and logistical support, is concerned that the coalition of Arab states could pressure the small Gulf state to reduce or cut off the assistance.
Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel Jubeir told reporters in Paris in June that Qatar needs to stop supporting “extremist groups” like Hamas. However, a list of demands presented to Qatar did not explicitly reference the group.