A senior official in the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs is one of four international mediators working to arrange a prisoner swap between Hamas and Israel, reported the German weekly Die Zeit on Wednesday.
Two senior German intelligence officials and an Egyptian general who helped arrange the prisoner exchange that resulted in the release of Gilad Shalit are also taking part in the negotiations.
Zehava Shaul told Holger Stark, the deputy editor-in-chief of Die Zeit, that during a visit to Berlin in December 2017, she asked Germany to get involved in the issue as it had in the past. Three months later, Heiko Maas visited Israel soon after becoming the German Minister for Foreign Affairs.
Sources told Stark that, during a meeting between Maas and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an agreement was made that Germany would take an active part in negotiations to bring back the bodies of IDF soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin and the return of the two Israeli civilians Hisham al-Sayyed and Avera Mengistu.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel told Bruno Kahl, the head of the BND, the German intelligence agency, to start work as a mediator. Two officials were selected to run the negotiations and began searching for a way to begin discussions with Hamas.
The two found a senior Swiss diplomat located in the Middle East who has maintained contact with Hamas for years. Switzerland had a central role in negotiations between the US and Iran that prevented a further escalation after the assassination of former IRGC Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani and subsequent Iranian missile fire on US bases in Iraq, according to Israel Hayom.
The report by Stark revealed that, as part of the negotiations for the Shalit deal, the Egyptian general now involved with current prisoner exchange negotiations took Ahmad Jabari, then head of the military wing of Hamas, to a movie in Cairo and dressed him in western clothing in an attempt to modernize him. Eventually Jabari conceded on a number of central issues, leading to the success of the deal.
"It seems that there is now a real possibility for a deal between Hamas and Israel for the release of all the prisoners of war and those missing in action. The stars aligned in a way that points to the best timing for a deal in the past five years. There is a desire from Hamas and from Israel and the gaps aren't so big," said David Midan, a former Mossad official who served as a mediator in the Shalit deal, to Die Zeit. "Hamas, from its side, is under pressure due to the coronavirus outbreak and is worried that, when there is an outbreak, they will be left without suitable medical equipment.
German officials are warned to have cautious optimism as there are seem to still be relatively large gaps between the two sides. Zehava Shaul returned to Berlin this past January to thank the German government and intelligence officials for their efforts.
A Hamas official claimed on Tuesday that recent reports in the Israeli media were part of a “campaign to mislead the families of the Zionist prisoners and exert pressure on the Palestinian prisoners and their families.”
The unnamed official was quoted by Hamas-affiliated websites as saying that “there is no qualitative progress in the negotiations conducted with the occupation through mediators.”
When asked about the Die Zeit report, Transportation Minister Betzalel Smotrich, who serves on the security cabinet, told Army Radio that he "did not know" how close Israel and Hamas were to reaching an agreement, as Netanyahu had denied his request to be updated on the matter and that there had not been a cabinet meeting on the issue.
Smotrich added that he was disturbed by the reports of a prisoner exchange and said he would absolutely oppose any agreement that required releasing terrorists.
Bereaved families associated with the right-wing political movement Im Tirzu protested against a possible prisoner swap, in a tent outside the Prime Minister’s Office on Tuesday with banners showing photos of Israelis murdered by terrorists released in exchange for captive IDF soldier Gilad Schalit.
Herzl Hajaj, whose daughter Shir was killed in a stabbing attack during her IDF service, said “Israel needs to stop this insanity which allows the wholesale release of prisoners. It’s clear that a terrorist that is released today will murder tomorrow. The blood of the people who will God forbid be murdered next will be on the hands of the Israeli government.”
A joint headquarters was established on Wednesday to fight against the possible deal. The Headquarters for the Fight against the Terror Deal was established by security officials, families who lost relatives to terror and war, jurists and activists.
"We call on the prime minister to look into the eyes of the Mizrahi, Rosenfeld, Gonen, Mor Yosef families and dozens of other families who's loved ones were killed by those released in the Shalit deal and to prevent any additional release," said the headquarters in a statement, stressing that there are many other ways to place "massive pressure" on Hamas to bring back the soldiers and citizens being held in Gaza.
On Tuesday night, IDF tanks struck three sites belonging to Hamas in the northern Gaza Strip, after a rocket was launched from Gaza towards southern Israel earlier in the night.
Khaled Abu Toameh contributed to this report.