Israel, Hamas hostage deal on horizon, reports German paper

Report says Israel and Hamas are closer than ever to a deal that would mean returning two Israeli hostages and the bodies of two Israeli soldiers.

By Lauren Marcus, World Israel News

German newspaper Die Zeit reported on Wednesday that Israeli officials and Hamas are on the verge of a hostage exchange deal.

The agreement would mean the return of two Israeli soldiers’ bodies, the release of two living Israeli hostages from Hamas captivity, and possibly hundreds of prisoners convicted of terrorism offenses released from Israeli custody.

The bodies of Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, IDF soldiers who were killed in battle during Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, have been held by Hamas since 2014.

Avera Mengistu and Hisham Al-Sayed, two Israeli citizens who crossed into Gaza in 2014 and 2015 respectively, are still alive and being held as captives by Hamas.

The report by Holger Stark, Die Zeit’s editor-in-chief, details a drawn-out negotiation process involving officials from Switzerland, Egypt and Germany. The report says that meetings have taken place over the last few years in Gaza, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Cairo, led by a senior Swiss diplomat who has been in close contact with Hamas officials for several years.

The report says that alongside the senior Swiss diplomat, an Egyptian general who was involved with the Gilad Shalit deal and two senior German intelligence officials are serving as the primary negotiators between Hamas and Israel.

Zehava Shaul, Oron Shaul’s mother, told Die Zeit that she visited Berlin in 2017 to personally ask Germany to intervene and help retrieve her son’s body from Gaza. Just three months later, Germany’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Heiko Maas, visited Israel and met with Prime Minister Netanyahu.

During his meeting with Netanyahu, Maas established that Germany would take on a significant role as an intermediary in negotiations between Israel and Hamas. In his previous role as Germany’s justice minister, Maas established close ties with a number of Israeli officials, including Ayelet Shaked, Israel’s former justice minister, assuring her that Germany would support Israel’s security “because of Auschwitz.”

According to the report, major progress has been made in the last few months, partially due to the coronavirus pandemic. The report speculates that the crisis has provided Israel with leverage against Hamas, as Israel could deny access to protective equipment to Hamas unless negotiations keep moving forward.

Similarly, it’s believed that an outcry from the Israeli public about the release of terrorists is less likely, as Israelis are currently grappling with the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.

David Meidan, a former senior Mossad official who served as one of the chief architects of the Gilad Shalit deal, told Die Zeit, “There seems to be a real possibility of a deal between Hamas and Israel right now for the release of all the prisoners and missing persons. All the stars are aligning. For the past five years, there was the will of Hamas, there was the will of Israel, and now the gap between the two is not so huge.”

On Tuesday evening, a Hamas official released a statement dismissing the report as fake news, claiming it was a “campaign to mislead the families of the Zionist prisoners and exert pressure on the Palestinian prisoners and their families.”

Transportation Minister Betzalel Smotrich, who serves on the Knesset’s Security Cabinet, spoke out about the report Wednesday morning on Army Radio. He said he was disturbed by the revelation, as no cabinet meeting on the issue has taken place and Netanayahu denied his request to be updated on the situation.

He added that he is vehemently opposed to any deal that would see terrorists released from Israeli prisons.