Coronavirus opened a window of opportunity that can't be missed - analysis

The global pandemic has brought Israel and Hamas closer than ever to a long-awaited prisoner swap.

Lt. Hadar Goldin (left) and St.-Sgt. Oron Shaul were killed in action in the war against Hamas in 2014 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Lt. Hadar Goldin (left) and St.-Sgt. Oron Shaul were killed in action in the war against Hamas in 2014
(photo credit: Courtesy)
After six years of waiting, the families of the Israeli soldiers and civilians held captive by Hamas in the Gaza Strip might finally have the chance to bring their boys home. But at a cost.
Hamas has held the remains of Lt. Hadar Goldin and St.-Sgt. Oron Shaul since 2014 and is keeping two Israeli citizens captive: Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, both suffering from mental health issues.
The possibility of a prisoner-exchange deal with Hamas has gained momentum over the past month and a half since the coronavirus crisis began – and this week, the government’s special negotiator for hostages and prisoners of war, Yaron Blum, met with the families to give them an update on the negotiations.
The Goldin family, in a statement, said that there’s a window of opportunity to bring the four home and that, “missing this opportunity now would be a national irresponsibility.”
There has been significant progress made in recent months toward reaching a long-term ceasefire arrangement between Israel and Hamas. But an IDF intelligence assessment released in January stated that, in contrast to Israel, Hamas does not include the return of the remains of the two soldiers and the two missing Israeli civilians as part of the arrangement.
Assuming that time was on its side, Hamas has over the years tried to keep all the cards in its hands. They stuck to their guns, providing no sign of life of any of the four and disseminating fake news about the status of the captives.
But, less than six months later, the terror group that rules over two million Gazans in one of the most densely populated areas in the world, has been working to contain an outbreak of the deadly virus in the coastal enclave.
Time is no longer on their side. An outbreak of the virus would spell disaster for the blockaded area.
Already in early April, Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar – himself a prisoner released by Israel in the 2011 Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange –  said that the group was interested in resuming talks with Israel. He also warned of a military escalation if Israel didn’t help Gaza in the fight against the coronavirus.
Hamas is incapable of dealing with an outbreak of the virus alone, and in addition to sending medical equipment, alcogel and personal protective equipment, Israel has also taken dozens of coronavirus tests to its military laboratory in Tzrifin.
Hamas politburo leader Ismail Haniyeh has been quoted by Arab media as saying that his group was “ready for indirect talks” with Israel and that he was “optimistic” about a possible deal.
The terror group has given Israel a long list of demands as part of a possible prisoner swap, including the release of elderly and sick prisoners as well as women and minors and all terrorists who were freed in the Shalit deal and later rearrested by Israel over the years.
Of the 1,027 Palestinians released in 2011, about 824 were released to the West Bank as part of the deal. Many later carried out terror attacks against Israeli soldiers and civilians. In 2014, Israel rearrested dozens as part of Operation Brother’s Keeper after three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and later found murdered by Hamas operatives in the West Bank.
While many believe the deal would bring quiet to the explosive border, Israel knows what releasing Hamas prisoners looks like and the risks that come along with it. But the Goldin family is correct in saying that it would be irresponsible to miss such an opportunity to give the families closure.
Coronavirus has drastically changed the reality on the ground. After years, Israel has the upper hand over Hamas – and can stick to its guns and demand a much lower price than it paid in 2011. While the risk of violence and terror will never disappear, the window of opportunity opened by a global pandemic won’t be open forever.