Israel was close to reaching a prisoner swap, says fmr. NSC official

Hamas is holding Avera Mengistu, Hisham al-Sayed, St.-Sgt. Oron Shaul and Lt. Hadar Goldin.

Israelis Hadar Goldin, Oron Shaul, Avera Mengistu and Hisham Al-Sayed being held by Hamas in Gaza (photo credit: COURTESY OF THE FAMILY/FACEBOOK)
Israelis Hadar Goldin, Oron Shaul, Avera Mengistu and Hisham Al-Sayed being held by Hamas in Gaza
(photo credit: COURTESY OF THE FAMILY/FACEBOOK)

Israel was "very close" to reaching a prisoner swap agreement to return the Israelis being held captive in the Gaza Strip, a former National Security Council official referred to as "Maoz" told KAN Reshet Bet radio on Thursday.

Hamas is holding Israeli citizens Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, and the bodies of IDF soldiers St.-Sgt. Oron Shaul and Lt. Hadar Goldin.

Maoz lamented that the issue of the captives has not been discussed recently, stressing that Israel needs to set red lines concerning how far its willing to go with economic incentives to Hamas until this issue is settled.

"I think there needs to be constant pressure," said the former official. "I think there needs to be a ceiling that we don't pass unless a solution is brought for the humanitarian issue of the captives and missing.

"We have two civilians and two soldiers who are there and this needs to always be in front of our eyes and we need to do everything in order to return them. Hamas needs to understand that there is a line, a strong line, and not a line that is blurred all the time and is crossed," added Maoz. "I think that we were very close to a solution concerning the captives and missing, again, because of reasons that I don't want to get into at the moment, we did not reach a solution."

Israelis attend a rally calling for the return of the remains of late Israeli soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin from Hamas captives, near the home of Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz in Rosh Haayin, May 21, 2021.  (credit: FLASH90)Israelis attend a rally calling for the return of the remains of late Israeli soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin from Hamas captives, near the home of Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz in Rosh Haayin, May 21, 2021. (credit: FLASH90)

The former NSC official stressed that he thinks "both sides were not ready" to reach an agreement, but that "it was possible to do something else in order to try and reach a solution." 

"The situation is so complicated from a lot of small details and therefore it was hard to reach understandings and agreements," concluded Maoz.

In April, KAN News revealed that shortly after a round of conflict between Hamas and Israel in August 2018, a meeting took place among the heads of the security establishment concerning the captives. According to the report, this was the closest the efforts to return the captives got since Operation Protective Edge in 2015.

Then Shin Bet head Nadav Argaman, then head of the IDF's Intelligence Directorate Tamir Heiman, then head of the Mossad Yossi Cohen, then chief negotiator for the release of hostages Yaron Blum and then Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot took part in the meeting.

The officials reached the conclusion that the existing conditions at the time were the best for Israel to reach a prisoner swap deal. 

The plan involved a mutual ceasefire, the cessation of civil sanctions, the opening of the Kerem Shalom crossing and the expansion of the fishing zone off the coast of Gaza as a first step. The next stage would involve the release of Hamas prisoners in return for the release of the captives.

In December, Moshe Tal, the former IDF official responsible for captives, told Army Radio that "There was a window of opportunity and I have a hard time explaining why Israel froze it. Some will say that the political reality sets the tone, some will say that we are traumatized by the Shalit deal. I do not take it lightly, but trauma is not a work plan."