COVID-19-triggered prisoner exchange deal: Opportunities, challenges, and policy recommendations

Yahya Sinwar in an April 2 interview with Al-Aqsa TV and the Shehab News Agency (Al-Aqsa TV’s Twitter account, April 3, 2020). According to Sinwar, Hamas is prepared to make a “partial concession” on the issue of the prisoners and MIAs in exchange for the release of prisoners who are old, sick, women and minors by the occupation [i.e., Israel].

Yahya Sinwar in an April 2 interview with Al-Aqsa TV and the Shehab News Agency (Al-Aqsa TV’s Twitter account, April 3, 2020). According to Sinwar, Hamas is prepared to make a “partial concession” on the issue of the prisoners and MIAs in exchange for the release of prisoners who are old, sick, women and minors by the occupation [i.e., Israel].

Yahya Sinwar in an April 2 interview with Al-Aqsa TV and the Shehab News Agency (Al-Aqsa TV’s Twitter account, April 3, 2020). According to Sinwar, Hamas is prepared to make a “partial concession” on the issue of the prisoners and MIAs in exchange for the release of prisoners who are old, sick, women and minors by the occupation [i.e., Israel].

Yahya Sinwar in an April 2 interview with Al-Aqsa TV and the Shehab News Agency (Al-Aqsa TV’s Twitter account, April 3, 2020). According to Sinwar, Hamas is prepared to make a “partial concession” on the issue of the prisoners and MIAs in exchange for the release of prisoners who are old, sick, women and minors by the occupation [i.e., Israel].

Policy paper by Col. (ret.) Michael Milstein
Overview[1]

The discourse on a prisoners exchange deal between Israel and Hamas is gradually gaining momentum and reflects a unique window of opportunity and a short-term meeting of interests that should be utilized quickly and efficiently.

  • The Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip fears that COVID-19 will spread throughout the Gaza Strip, a scenario that Hamas’s leaders and the Gaza public know they cannot address (this is in contrast to promising façade that Hamas is attempting to convey, stressing the low number of carriers among Gazans to date).
  • Against this backdrop, in recent weeks Hamas has conveyed clearer messages than ever about its willingness to promote a prisoner and MIAs exchange deal, presenting an initiative that – according to the narrative that the movement is trying to establish – stems from concern about the condition of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons (fear of the spread of COVID-19 among them).
  • Israel has a paramount humanitarian and strategic interest in preventing the spread of COVID-19 in the Gaza Strip, a scenario that is very likely to affect the security situation in this arena. Israel also has an interest in avoiding the spread of COVID-19 among security prisoners (about 5,000 in number), a scenario that will affect the security situation in both the Gaza Strip and Judea and Samaria. In between, as stated, Israel is committed to examining how to take advantage of the situation that has emerged in order to advance the issue of the prisoners and MIAs, including the transfer of information about the condition of two civilians held by Hamas and their return to Israel, as well as the return of two fallen IDF soldiers killed during Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip (summer 2014).
Hamas’s position
  • From a long series of interviews in recent weeks with Hamas officials (led by Ismail Haniyeh, chairman of Hamas’s political bureau, and Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’s leader in the Gaza Strip), as well as official statements issued by Hamas, it is possible to learn the basics of the deal from Hamas’s perspective. Hamas takes care to use the term “partial concession,” stressing that this is not a “broad deal” under which prisoners and fallen soldiers will be returned in exchange for a large-scale release of prisoners, most notably those released in the Shalit prisoner exchange deal (November 2011), most of whom were arrested again during Operation Brother’s Keeper (May-July 2014).All the hints conveyed by Hamas indicate that it is willing to convey information (probably visual) about the condition of the two civilians in exchange for the release of about 1,000 prisoners who are at risk due to the threat of COVID-19 (700 patients, 200 minors, 60 elders and about 40 women). According to Hamas officials, this is a replication of the model used in the case of Gilad Shalit (IDF soldier held by Hamas in 2006-2011), when an audiotape was sent indicating the condition of the abducted soldier in exchange for the release of a few dozen female prisoners. In any case, Hamas emphasizes that it will not agree to “gestures” on its part merely in exchange for civilian steps vis-à-vis the Gaza Strip without such steps being accompanied by the release of prisoners.
Recommendation for Israeli policy
  • The Israeli side must act, as stated, with the understanding that the window of opportunity for promoting a deal is relatively limited and is constantly in the shadow of the COVID-19 crisis. The extensive spread of the virus is liable to lead to rapid deterioration in the security situation without a prisoner and MIA exchange deal being finalized (in this context, Hamas officials frequently declare that Israel alone will be responsible for the spread of COVID-19 in the Gaza Strip). Conversely, Hamas’s success in curbing the spread is liable to reduce its motivation to promote a deal (although the pretext of concern for the welfare of Palestinian prisoners still remains).
  • First, throughout the negotiations, Israel must adhere to the demand that Hamas’s response to civilian aid in the fight against COVID-19 will not be limited to the transfer of information, but will also include the necessary practical steps, namely the return of civilians and fallen IDF soldiers. In this context, Israel must demand reciprocity from Hamas with regard to ascertaining the condition of the prisoners: bringing Red Cross teams to Israeli prisons to assess the condition of the prisoners in exchange for a similar visit by representatives of the Red Cross to the prisoners held by Hamas.
  • This necessitates a change in Israel’s agreement in recent years to differentiate between the discourse channel about a strategic arrangement in the Gaza Strip and the channel for talks on the issue of the prisoners and MIAs. Continuing such differentiation could result in Israel increasing the civilian aid that it already provides to the Gaza Strip (transferring medical equipment such as test kits, and training Gazan doctors), without making any real progress in the talks regarding the prisoners and MIAs, and without Hamas fully understanding the close connection between the two tracks from Israel’s perspective.
  • Second, Israel must engage in an in-depth dialogue with all the external parties that influence Hamas, especially those acting as mediators (headed by Egypt). This is for the purpose of exerting pressure on Hamas, including making the provision of aid from these parties (chiefly Qatar, the United Nations, and possibly also Saudi Arabia, which has been detaining several dozen Hamas operatives for about a year) conditional on flexibility in negotiations.
  • Third, Israel must promote moves at the hearts and minds level, especially moves directed at the Gazan population. In this context, it is recommended to promote a direct dialogue between officials who are perceived as reliable in the Palestinian arena and the public in the Gaza Strip, by presenting Israel’s assistance in preserving the fabric of life in the Gaza Strip in general and the fight against COVID-19 in particular and, conversely, Hamas’s reluctance that actually limits the assistance received by the Gazan population from abroad.
  • Fourth, Israel must examine the broad implications of such negotiations, and the even broader implications of the realization of a deal in the Palestinian arena. Such a move, like the Shalit deal a decade ago, is liable to strengthen Hamas’s image and status in the Palestinian arena as an entity capable of making strategic achievements and one that cares for the Palestinian prisoners, while simultaneously harming the image and status of the Palestinian Authority. It is important to keep Ramallah in the picture when it comes to negotiations, to examine how and where it can be included and to give it the ability to present achievements to the Palestinian public (for example, releasing some of the prisoners, especially those from Judea and Samaria, to the PA, via its representatives).
  • The present deal could provide an opportunity to fill gaps that were set aside during the formation of the arrangement (or “understandings,” which is the term used by Hamas) between Israel and Hamas in recent months, an arrangement which is still very vague and therefore not very stable. In order to turn the arrangement into a move with coherent strategic content, in addition to promoting the issue of the prisoners and MIAs, it will also be necessary to incorporate conditions regarding further Hamas terrorist activity directed against the arenas of Judea and Samaria and inside Israel (which is ongoing) and, in particular, to require Hamas to enforce full sovereignty over all the factions in the Gaza Strip, and especially the Islamic Jihad which, at least until the COVID-19 crisis, indicated that they were not bound by the understandings.
  • As stated, the time dimension is critical in the context of the current talks. If the negotiations are not significantly advanced in recent weeks, circumstances could change in such a way that will return both sides to the profound stagnation that characterized the prisoner and MIA discussions until the outbreak of the COVID-19 crisis.

[1] Head of the Palestinian Studies Forum at the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University and coordinator of the fight against violence and crime in Arab society in Israel at the INSS Institute. Colonel (ret.) in the IDF. Until 2018, he served as advisor to the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), and prior to that as head of the Palestinian arena in the IDF Directorate of Military Intelligence. He has published three books and dozens of articles on the Palestinian issue in general and on analyzing strategic trends in the Middle East in general.
[2] Hamas’s announcement that followed the statements made by Sinwar also mentioned the release of women (Hamas website, April 3, 2020).