Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman on Sunday denied reports of a “breakthrough” in talks with Hamas over returning Israeli citizens and bodies of soldiers held in Gaza in exchange for Palestinian prisoners.
According to Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, Israel and Hamas were on the brink of an initial deal in which the Islamist Gaza rulers would provide information over the missing Israelis in return for the release of groups of prisoners.
Two Israeli soldiers, Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, are believed to have been killed in the 2014 war in Gaza and their remains held by Hamas.
Three Israeli civilians, all said to be mentally unstable, are also believed to have entered Gaza and to be held by Hamas.
They include Avera Mengistu, an Israeli Jew of Ethiopian descent, and two Muslim Bedouins, Hisham Al-Sayed and Juma Abu Ghanima.
“We have no contact with Hamas. There’s an ongoing effort to release our soldiers and civilians held in Hamas captivity,” Lieberman said in an interview with Galey Israel radio.
“And there’s no breakthrough.”
While Israel says it does not speak directly with Hamas, indirect negotiations with the Islamist movement lead to the 2011 deal which saw it release more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for soldier Gilad Shalit, who had been held for five years.
“We don’t negotiate with terror organisations,” Lieberman said, calling the Saturday report “psychological warfare” by Hamas.
A source close to Hamas told AFP that “negotiations are underway with Western parties to reach a partial deal involving a swap of information about the fate of prisoners of (Hamas armed wing) Al Qassam Brigades for the release of prisoners from occupation prisons,” or Israel.
“The deal would be for prisoners released in the Shalit deal who were rearrested since,” the source said, noting that “the final points have not yet been crystallised.”
Following the Shalit deal, Israel commissioned a number of experts to set forth binding principles in negotiations on abducted soldiers which stipulated that lower numbers of prisoners could be released, and there should be no negotiations over remains.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett meanwhile spoke out against releasing “live terrorists for the bodies of our soldiers,” calling instead to “increase the pressure and hurt Hamas so holding the bodies is no longer worth it.”
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