A senior official in the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs is one of four international mediators working to arrange a prisoner swap between Hamas and Israel, according to a report by the German weekly Die Zeit Wednesday. Two senior German intelligence officials and an Egyptian general who helped arrange the prisoner exchange that resulted in the release of Gilad Shalit are also taking part in the negotiations.
Zehava Shaul, the mother of missing soldier Oron Shaul who is one of two Israeli soldiers and two civilians missing in the Gaza Strip, told Holger Stark, the deputy editor-in-chief of Die Zeit, that during a visit to Berlin in December 2017, she asked Germany to get involved in the issue as it had in the past regarding Shalit.
Stark is considered to be the German journalist with the most access to German intelligence agency BND, which parallels the Israeli Mossad. In the past he has published books about the relationships between the two agencies as well as about the previous prisoner exchange deals between terror groups and Israel. Stark wrote that during a meeting between German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on his 2018 visit soon after he was appointed, an agreement was made that Germany would take an active part in negotiations to bring back the bodies of IDF soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin and the return of the two Israeli civilians Hisham al-Sayyed and Avera Mengistu.
Haas had declared on many previous occasions his commitment and Germany’s commitment to help Israel “because of Auschwitz”.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel told Bruno Kahl, the head of the BND, the German intelligence agency, to start work as a mediator. Two officials were selected to run the negotiations and began searching for a way to begin discussions with Hamas. The two found a senior Swiss diplomat located in the Middle East who has maintained contact with Hamas for years. Switzerland had a central role in negotiations between the US and Iran that prevented a further escalation after the assassination of former IRGC Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani and subsequent Iranian missile fire on US bases in Iraq, according to Israel Hayom.
The report by Stark revealed that, as part of the negotiations for the Shalit deal, the Egyptian general now involved with current prisoner exchange negotiations took Ahmad Jabari, then head of the military wing of Hamas, to a movie in Cairo for the first time in his life and dressed him in western clothing in an attempt to modernize him. Eventually Jabari conceded on a number of central issues, leading to the success of the deal.
“It seems that there is now a real possibility for a deal between Hamas and Israel for the release of all the prisoners of war and those missing in action. The stars aligned in a way that points to the best timing for a deal in the past five years. There is a desire from Hamas and from Israel and the gaps aren’t so big,” said David Midan, a former Mossad official who served as a mediator in the Shalit deal, to Die Zeit. “Hamas, from its side, is under pressure due to the coronavirus outbreak and is worried that, when there is an outbreak, they will be left without suitable medical equipment.”
German officials warned to maintain cautious optimism as there are seem to still be relatively large gaps between the two sides. Zehava Shaul returned to Berlin this past January to thank the German government and intelligence officials for their efforts.
A Hamas official claimed Tuesday that recent reports in the Israeli media were part of a “campaign to mislead the families of the Zionist prisoners and exert pressure on the Palestinian prisoners and their families.”
Not all Israelis are positively inclined towards a prisoner exchange deal. Bereaved families associated with the right-wing political movement Im Tirzu protested against a possible prisoner swap in a tent outside the Prime Minister’s Office on Tuesday with banners showing photos of Israelis murdered by terrorists released in exchange for captive IDF soldier Gilad Schalit. Many right-wing Israeli figures, including Transportation Minister Betzalel Smotrich, have expressed vehement opposition to a deal which would include release of Hamas terrorists.
Herzl Hajaj, whose daughter Shir was killed in a stabbing attack during her IDF service, said “Israel needs to stop this insanity which allows the wholesale release of prisoners. It’s clear that a terrorist that is released today will murder tomorrow. The blood of the people who will God forbid be murdered next will be on the hands of the Israeli government.”
A joint headquarters was established on Wednesday to fight against the possible deal. The Headquarters for the Fight against the Terror Deal was established by security officials, families who lost relatives to terror and war, jurists and activists.
“We call on the prime minister to look into the eyes of the Mizrahi, Rosenfeld, Gonen, Mor Yosef families and dozens of other families who’s loved ones were killed by those released in the Shalit deal and to prevent any additional release,” said the headquarters in a statement, stressing that there are many other ways to place “massive pressure” on Hamas to bring back the soldiers and citizens being held in Gaza.