Are Israel and Hamas close to reaching a prisoner exchange deal?

The rare gathering of the Hamas leadership in Cairo has led many Palestinians to believe that a deal is about to be announced.

HAMAS CHIEF Ismail Haniyeh speaks to the press upon his arrival at the Rafah border crossing in the southern Gaza Strip in 2017. (photo credit: ABED RAHIM KHATIB/FLASH90)
HAMAS CHIEF Ismail Haniyeh speaks to the press upon his arrival at the Rafah border crossing in the southern Gaza Strip in 2017.
(photo credit: ABED RAHIM KHATIB/FLASH90)

A recent meeting in Cairo between Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh and Fadwa Barghouti, wife of jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, has triggered a wave of speculation regarding an imminent prisoner-exchange agreement with Israel.

Haniyeh also met with Rana Shobaki, daughter of 82-year-old Fuad Shobaki, the oldest Palestinian prisoner currently held in an Israeli jail. 

A senior general in the Palestinian Authority security forces and a financial adviser to former PLO leader Yasser Arafat, Shobaki was sentenced to 20 years in prison for his role in the failed attempt to smuggle the Karen A weapons ship from Iran into the Gaza Strip in 2002.

After the meetings, the Palestinian and Arab media were filled with reports about “significant progress” and a “breakthrough” in Egyptian efforts to secure a prisoner-exchange agreement between Israel and Hamas.

An unconfirmed story in a Hezbollah-affiliated newspaper reporting that Germany was now involved in the mediation efforts has triggered rumors about an impending deal.

FATAH LEADER Marwan Barghouti is escorted in handcuffs into the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court in 2012. (credit: FLASH90)FATAH LEADER Marwan Barghouti is escorted in handcuffs into the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court in 2012. (credit: FLASH90)

Haniyeh was in the Egyptian capital together with several senior Hamas officials. They were invited to Cairo for talks with Egyptian intelligence officials on ways of preserving the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip in the aftermath of last May’s Israel-Hamas war, and the possibility of reaching a prisoner-exchange agreement.

The rare gathering of the Hamas leadership in Cairo has led many Palestinians to believe that a deal is about to be announced.

Sources close to Hamas said that while some progress was achieved on the first two issues – the ceasefire and reconstruction – it is premature to talk about a breakthrough on a prisoner swap.

Other sources, however, claimed that “certain” progress has been achieved toward striking a prisoner-exchange deal, but refused to elaborate.

Senior Hamas official Musa Abu Marzouk was quoted earlier this week as saying Israel has initiated a certain “move” on the prisoner issue. He did not provide any details, but said that it was “insufficient and does not create a serious impression.”

Abu Marzouk and other Hamas officials said the ball was now in Israel’s court, and claimed a deal could be reached within weeks once Israel accepted Hamas’s demands.

Another Hamas official claimed the only new development on the issue of the indirect talks to reach a prisoner-exchange deal was that Israel was no longer linking it to a reconstruction of the Gaza Strip.

“Until recently, Israel emphasized that the two issues are interrelated,” the official said on Thursday. 

“But now we understand from the Egyptians that Israel has dropped this condition.”

BARGHOUTI, SHOBAKI and Ahmed Sa’dat, secretary-general of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), who was jailed for his role in the 2001 assassination of former Tourism minister Rehavam Ze’evi, are at the top of the list of prisoners that Hamas is demanding in return for the bodies of IDF soldiers Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul. Additionally, Hamas is holding two Israeli civilians, Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, who entered the Gaza Strip on their own in 2014 and 2015.

Hamas is also insisting that Israel release its senior military commanders Hassan Salameh, Abbas al-Sayed, Ibrahim Hamed, Abdel Nasser Issa and Jamal Abu al-Haijah. They are all serving lengthy sentences for their role in dozens of terrorist attacks, including suicide bombings in which hundreds of Israelis were killed and injured.

Hamas is also demanding the release of the six Palestinian prisoners who escaped from Gilboa Prison last month. Five of the inmates belong to Palestinian Islamic Jihad, while the sixth, Zakariya Zubeidi, is a former commander of Fatah’s Aqsa Martyrs Brigades in Jenin. The six escapees were later recaptured.

A Fatah official in Ramallah told The Jerusalem Post that Barghouti and Shobaki will be included in the upcoming prisoner-exchange deal. The official said that despite the tensions between Fatah and Hamas, the Gaza-based terrorist group has provided the PA leadership with a partial list of the prisoners it wants released from Israeli prison.

“We are talking about more than 1,000 prisoners,” the official told the Post. “Barghouti and Shobaki were supposed to be released in the [Gilad] Schalit deal in 2011. In the end, Israel will end up paying a similar price to the one it paid back then, when it released 1,027 Palestinian prisoners.”

The Fatah official said that the PA leadership was also in touch with the Egyptians regarding the prisoner-exchange issue.

“The Palestinian Authority leadership will be part of the deal,” he argued. “The Egyptians know that excluding the Palestinian leadership from a deal will strengthen Hamas, and I’m not sure that’s what Egypt, Israel and the US want.”