Coronavirus Brings Israel and Hamas Closer to a Long-delayed Prisoner Swap

Reports concerning the renewal of negotiations between Israel and Hamas over the fate of Israel’s prisoners and the remains of missing soldiers are slowly leaking out. The coronavirus crisis has changed the priorities of the Hamas regime in Gaza, which now needs Israeli and international aid to contend with a possible outbreak of the pandemic inside its territory.

Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar said two weeks ago he was interested in resuming talks. At the same time, he threatened Israel with a military escalation if Israel did not help Gaza fight the spread of coronavirus on its turf. Since then reports, mainly in Arab media, have provided news of supposed developments in these negotiations. Among these reported developments, were a Palestinian demand for the release of large numbers of prisoners in exchange for information on the condition of two Israeli civilians, Abre Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed; the involvement of German and Egyptian mediators in the indirect talks, and a claim by Palestinian sources that the first part of a deal will involve a shipment of respirators from Israel to Gaza.

A woman decorates a protective face mask in the Shijaiyah neighborhood of Gaza, on Thursday, April 2, 2020.Adel Hana,AP

The coronavirus situation has caused a fundamental change in the situation. Hamas has had an advantage in the negotiations with Israel ever since they’ve been holding the bodies of two IDF soldiers, First Lt. Hadar Goldin and Sgt. Maj. Oron Shaul, from Operation Protective Edge in 2014. Hamas held these “assets” that Israel wanted badly, but did not agree to pay the price Hamas was demandeding. The organization was in no rush to close a deal, probably believing that Israel would ultimately relent on its terms.

Looking at prisoner exchange deals in the past shows that in most, if not all of these cases, the final compromise was closer to the demands of the other side. According to various reports, in this case negotiations have been stuck for a long time due to a precondition set by Hamas that Israel release Palestinian prisoners from the West Bank which Israel had freed in a deal for Gilad Shalit in 2011, but later arrested again after the kidnappings of three youths in the Etzion Bloc area in 2014. The prisoners were taken anew into custody based on a claim that they had violated the terms of their release.