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Coronavirus crisis pushes Hamas to make a deal with Israel

Apr 21,2020 - Last updated at Apr 21,2020

The coronavirus pandemic is putting old rivalries on hold as countries and territories focus their efforts on containing the spread of the virus. Nowhere is this true than in Israel, where the government has extended a loan to the Palestinian Authority (PA) to boost its medical measures as the latter attempts to mitigate the spread of the disease in the West Bank. Meanwhile, Hamas has launched its own initiative seeking a deal with Israel regarding the fate of two Israeli soldiers, believed dead, as well as two civilians it holds in exchange for a major prisoner release in addition to easing up the economic blockade.

On and off negotiations have been going on for years; since Israel ended a major military operation against Gaza in 2014. Public pressure has been mounting on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to strike a deal with Hamas to hand over the remains of two Israeli soldiers killed in the military operation. Hamas has been holding two Israeli civilians as well. But mediators have not been able to reach an agreement; that is until now.

Gaza has a limited number of coronavirus infections but international agencies have warned that a major spread would be catastrophic for the two million people living in one of the most crowded territories in the world. As a result of the Israeli blockade, imposed on the strip since 2007, Gaza’s medical infrastructure is in shambles. It has no more than 65 ventilators and limited ICU capacity; meaning that an outbreak would quickly get out of hand. This is what prompted Hamas military leader Yahya Sinwar to announce, two weeks ago, that his movement was ready to resume talks with Israel over a possible prisoner swap. He had threatened Israel with a military strike if it failed to help Gaza get the necessary international aid to help it fight the spread of the virus.

Initially, Hamas promised to provide vital information on the condition of the two Israeli civilians in exchange for a prisoner swap. There are an estimated 5,000 Palestinians in Israeli prisons, including women and children. Palestinian sources said that the first part of the deal would include the delivery of badly needed respirators. Israel is yet to comment on this.

According to Palestinian sources, German and Egyptian mediators are now involved in the indirect negotiations. Israeli officials have been silent on the deal. The last time the two sides reached a prisoner swap agreement was in 2011. Since then Israel had launched a number of strikes against Gaza; badly undermining its infrastructure while failing to weaken Hamas and its ally, Islamic Jihad. On the other hand, Hamas and Islamic Jihad had proven that they had developed their missile launching capabilities. Last year, Israel’s southern region was targeted by missiles and incendiaries that forced Israelis into shelters while resulting in huge economic losses.

Israel finds itself in a difficult position. On the one hand it maintains a tough economic blockade on Gaza, but on the other it works with Qatar and Egypt to make sure that Hamas’ grip over Gaza continues to hold. Hamas has been making peace gestures towards Israel seeking to strike a long-term truce that would open up Gaza and allow for foreign aid to pour in. Hamas has shown no real intention to end its quarrel with the Palestinian Authority despite Egyptian mediation.

For Israel, the Palestinian rift has been a boon for its plans to annex major chunks of the West Bank, under Donald Trump’s peace plan, while claiming that Gaza is the future Palestinian state.

A possible deal with Hamas will give beleaguered Netanyahu a boost as he tries to form a new government and evade criminal prosecution. Israel fears that a virus outbreak in Gaza could easily cross the borders threatening southern Israel. But the cost of the deal could also weaken Netanyahu’s position. Hamas wants the release of thousands of prisoners in Israeli custody beginning with women, minors and the elderly. If successful, the deal would embarrass Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas who had tried, and failed, in the past to secure the release of Palestinian prisoners. The current health crisis has reshuffled the cards and re-arranged priorities for Israel, the PA and Hamas.

For now, Israel and Hamas are using the coronavirus crisis to fulfill their own objectives. Whether the two sides can reach an agreement soon remains in doubt. But they also know that the current health crisis could get out of hand soon in Gaza and Israel will take the blame as well as the risk of an outbreak reaching its citizens.

From previous experiences, we know that Israel would try to lower the cost of any deal. Hamas, on the other hand, wants to exact a bigger price; the flow of aid and a major prisoner swap in exchange for information on its captives and not their actual release. A stalemate could be broken if an outbreak does take place in Gaza and things get out of hand.

 

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman

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