Gaza Reconstruction Caught In Prisoner Swap Conundrum

Israel links aid to rebuild Gaza to the release of its prisoners and return of remains of soldiers, but Hamas wants 1,100 Palestinian captives freed instead

Israel and Hamas have failed to make any progress over prisoner swap, with both sides sticking to preconditions for arriving at an agreement. In indirect discussions mediated by Egypt in Cairo, Israel sought return of two civilians and remains of two of its fallen soldiers being held in Gaza for allowing reconstruction aid for the besieged Gaza Strip. Hamas, however, rejected the demand saying hostages will be returned only if the Israelis were forthcoming on the release of Palestinians languishing in their prisons.

Around 4,500 Palestinians, including 41 women, 140 minors, and 440 administrative detainees, are believed to be in Israeli prisons, according to data compiled by organizations dealing with prisoner rights. Hamas is said to have sought the release of 1,100 captives this time, higher than the number of Palestinians freed in the last major swap in 2011.

Quoting Kan public broadcaster, The Times of Israel said “the Hamas demands in Cairo… were dramatic and unrealistic, but the Israeli delegation was still hopeful that Egypt can exert enough pressure on Hamas to allow an agreement to be reached”. At the same time, Israel Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has been adamant about combining the return of remains of soldiers and post-war reconstruction in Gaza, which the US government has recently objected to as it believed such a hardened position can lead to a breakdown of talks and trigger fresh violence.

Why talks now?

Word spread about a possible prisoner exchange deal in January, a time when then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was desperately trying to cling on to power and was willing to do everything to win an upcoming election. Ten years ago, during a similarly volatile phase in his political career, when anti-Netanyahu protests were the order of the day, he had authorized the release of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for captive soldier Gilad Shalit. Aged 19, Shalit was captured near the Kerem Shalom border crossing on June 25, 2006, and was held by Hamas at an unknown location in Gaza Strip for the next five years. His release, along with the frequent airstrikes on Gaza and Hamas, ensured another term for Netanyahu in 2013. At least 60 of the freed Palestinian prisoners were subsequently rearrested.

Beyond the political gains were concerns over COVID-19 infections in detention facilities. Israel feared for the lives of its prisoners in Hamas captivity in Gaza, where healthcare facilities were the bare minimum. Shortage of medicines, oxygen, and intensive care facilities have been crippling hospitals in the Strip. Hamas was equally worried about Palestinians in Israeli jails after some COVID-positive cases emerged. On April 1, Bennett, Israel’s then Defense Minister, suggested that they were willing to provide humanitarian relief to Gaza in exchange for “recovery of the fallen”. The next day, Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas leader who was among those freed in the 2011 exchange, said they might make partial concessions on the matter if Palestinians in Israeli jails were set free. Such flexibility was a clear departure from the outfit’s previously held position that Israel should free all high-profile Palestinian prisoners it rearrested after exchanging them for Shalit.

The swap idea gained traction after the 11-day war between Israel and Hamas ended with an Egypt-brokered ceasefire on May 21. According to Gaza authorities, as many as 277 Palestinians, including 70 children and 40 women, had died in the conflict. The Gaza Strip, where at least 2.1 million people live in a 365 sq km area under the Hamas rule, had turned into a sea of rubble with residential buildings, schools, and hospitals bearing the brunt of airstrikes. “There is a real chance to make progress [in indirect negotiations],” Sinwar had said, days after the ceasefire came into force.

Israel controlled many crossings into Gaza and hence its approval may be important for reconstruction projects in the impoverished coastal enclave. A few days into the ceasefire, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz had said, “We are willing to help with fixing the area, rebuilding it, construction, etc. But it’s conditioned with the return of our boys back home, the abducted soldiers.” Such repeated assertions on clubbing prisoner swap and Gaza reconstruction together have dashed hopes of Hamas top leaders, who thought they could achieve much more than what was on the table – say a reciprocal release of Palestinians from Israeli jails on a large scale as in 2011.

Incidentally, from the political point of view, Israel had been more intent on getting the bodies of soldiers than securing the release of two civilians. The mother of Avner Mengistu, one of the captive civilians, had often accused Netanyahu of doing nothing to secure her son’s release because he was a Black man born in Ethiopia. Mengistu’s family had migrated to Israel when he was 5 years old. He had disappeared after crossing a fence separating Israel and the northern Gaza Strip in 2014. Now 34, Mengistu is said to be mentally unstable. Another mentally ill captive, Hisham al-Sayed is a 29-year-old Palestinian with Israeli citizenship. He had entered the Gaza Strip in 2015, through an opening in the border fence. The Israeli soldiers in captivity are 27-year-old Oron Shaul and 30-year-old Hadar Goldin, both captured during the 2014 Gaza war. While the Israeli government claimed they were both killed, their respective families thought otherwise.

Unfortunately, the political motif in prisoner swap discussions has only served to prolong the sufferings of the people of Gaza, who are being targeted by Israeli fighter jets despite a tenuous truce. Reconstruction in the coastal strip may not be a priority for Israel, but the prisoner swap issue is a golden opportunity that Hamas should seize to alleviate the sufferings of Palestinians living there. The release of a large number of prisoners would increase its popularity at the expense of the Palestinian Authority, but Gaza should not remain a living hell on earth anymore.

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