'Squeezing' Hamas will not bring captive Israelis home - opinion

The “squeeze Hamas policy” of the past 13 and half years has not worked at all. Perhaps it is time to try something new.

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
 The speedy return of the young Israeli woman from captivity in Syria presses the question why was the deal done so quickly while Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, two soldiers killed in action, and Avera Mengistu and Hisham A-Sayed, two Israeli civilians presumed to be alive, are still in Gaza after more than six years? 
There are many answers, the main ones being that the deal for the young woman had a low price tag to it and Vladimir Putin, who mediated, has actual power over Bashar Assad. Hamas, on the other hand, is not under the control of any outside power and the price tag attached to the deal to release the four Israelis is still much too high for any Israeli government to pay.  
When mediated negotiations began between Israel and Hamas, originally only for the return of the two bodies of the Israeli soldiers, the Israeli position was bodies for bodies. Israel had in its possession the bodies of a lot of Gazan combatants killed in action that were taken out of Gaza. Hamas responded that before they were even willing to begin negotiations, Israel had to release the 68 Hamas prisoners Israel re-arrested in the Shuvu Achim (“Bring our bothers home”) operation in June 2014, following the kidnapping and murder of Naftali Fraenkel, Gil-Ad Shaer, and Eyal Yifrah. 
The 68 prisoners were previously released in the Schalit deal in October 2011. Hamas claimed that Israel violated the terms of the agreement for their release and that none of them were connected to the killing of the Gush Etzion teens. Hamas’s claims were not wrong. For most of the past five years ,Hamas has demanded that Israel release all of the ex-Schalit prisoners (as they call them) with the exception of any of them that returned to violence against the terms of their release agreement. Over the past years, more than 20 of them have been released as their new prison terms expired and there now remain about 42 ex-Schalit prisoners in Israeli jails. Over the past year, it seems that Hamas has agreed that about 40 of them would be released as part of a new deal and not as a down payment that Israel has totally refused to pay. 
Hamas leaders, including Yahya Sinwar, have promised his people that he would release thousands of Palestinian prisoners in a new exchange deal with Israel. That is not going to happen. There is 100% assuredness in Israel that Goldin and Shaul were killed in battle. Mengistu and A-Sayed crossed into Gaza on their own, they are civilians not military, they are both mentally ill and Israel views them as humanitarian cases who should be brought home without any price being paid. 
Hamas claims that they are holding at least one living soldier and they demand no less than the 1,000 prisoners they got in exchange for Gilad Schalit. I have yet to meet a Palestinian who believes that there is no living Israeli soldier being held in Gaza. 
Sinwar set the bar very high and it is almost impossible for him to agree to less, even more so before elections in Hamas. Israel has made it very clear that it will not release a single new prisoner with Israeli blood on their hands. In addition to the trauma that the Israeli political and military echelons sense today regarding the Schalit deal (at the time of the Schalit deal 86% of Israelis supported it), there is no Israeli public pressure on the government to give in to Hamas demands.
In the Schalit negotiations, an understanding was reached through Egyptian mediation already in December 2006, six months after Schalit’s abduction, that Israel would release 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for Schalit’s return. That number remained the same over the next five years. The core of the serious negotiations between Israel and Hamas, after David Meidan took over the job of bringing Schalit home, was to mitigate the risks to the Israeli public from the large release. 
At that time, the military establishment (military intel, Shin Bet, Mossad and the police) wanted the most dangerous prisoners to be removed from the Hamas list. These were the Palestinians who were responsible for killing hundreds of Israelis. They wanted another group of 25 prisoners to be deported from the country forever. They demanded that the majority of West Bank prisoners be sent to Gaza. All of those Israeli conditions were met with the exception of the last – 50% minus one of the West Bank prisoners were sent to Gaza. 
TODAY, THE Israeli military assessment is different and they do not want any released prisoners to be sent from the West Bank abroad or to Gaza. They hold a smaller risk when they are in the West Bank, where they can be fully monitored by Israel. 
The gap between Israel and Hamas, even after more than six years, remains very wide. Israel will not release prisoners who have killed Israelis and Hamas will not agree on a deal without them. Israel has apparently agreed to increase the number of prisoners they are willing to release, including women, minors and sick prisoners – but none who have Israeli blood on their hands. 
The demands of the Goldin family to squeeze Hamas by tightening the siege on Gaza is exactly what Israel has been doing since Hamas took over Gaza in June 2007. It doesn’t seem to be creating more moderate neighbors – rather quite the opposite. The trust gap between Israel and Hamas in both directions makes negotiating almost impossible. 
During the Schalit negotiations, the trust gap was overcome by the relationship that had been built up by Dr. Ghazi Hamad, then the Hamas deputy foreign minister, and myself, that allowed us to break the rules of negotiating by putting our cards on the table and agreeing to the middle ground from the outset. The trust that existed between Ghazi Hamad and Ahmad Jaabri enabled Ghazi to push forward with me. The trust that was behind my relationship David Meidan allowed for the convening of the secret back channel and its success in reaching a breakthrough. None of those conditions exist today.  
Hamad does not have the same relationship with Sinwar that he had with Jaabri. Without a clear sign from the Hamas side of a willingness to run a secret direct back channel, Israel will not give the green light for the channel. Egypt has demanded full control over the mediation, yet Egypt has far less control over Hamas than Putin’s control over Syria. 
The “squeeze Hamas policy” of the past 13 and half years has not worked at all. Perhaps it is time to try something new. I have suggested this in the past each time I write about Gaza. How about relating to the 1.3 million people living in Gaza as neighbors, potentially even good neighbors, instead of 1.3 million people dedicated to killing us? I am not suggesting removing defenses and letting down our guard. I am suggesting changing disks and starting to care about the humanitarian disaster that we are partners in creating. 
It has been reported that Israel has agreed to allow Qatar to provide the resources to double the amount of electricity produced in Gaza, which means that most people will soon have electricity for eight hours per day. That is certainly an improvement and maybe a new direction. I hope so. On the other hand, reflecting what the majority right-wing parties in Israel believe, in an interview with Assaf Liberman on Channel 11, ex-justice minister Ayelet Shaked was asked: “So you say Israel shouldn’t bring vaccines and the Gazans can just die of corona?” “That’s right,” she said. “As long as they hold our soldiers’ bodies they can deal on their own... not even humanitarian aid.”
The writer is a political and social entrepreneur who has dedicated his life to the State of Israel and to peace between Israel and her neighbors. His latest book, In Pursuit of Peace in Israel and Palestine, was published by Vanderbilt University Press. It is now out in Arabic and in Portuguese as well.