As PM Naftali Bennett negotiates the prisoner swap of four Israeli soldiers captured by the Palestinian resistance, two further missing Israelis could weaken his hand.
A recent video report by Al-Jazeera on the suffering of Palestinian captives in Israeli prisons has catapulted this issue back into the limelight. The report itself did not provide new information about the miserable conditions of prisoners, but in its final minutes, it showed details of an unconfirmed incident that had been whispered about for months.
In September 2020, a movement calling itself ‘Freedom’ aired a video clip in which it claimed that two Israelis had been captured while on a ‘security mission’ outside occupied Palestine. At that time, no one officially denied or confirmed this information. Palestinians treated the news with extreme caution as they have a long, painful history with misinformation seeded by both Israeli and Arab intelligence operations.
The Cradle has discovered that Egyptian intelligence questioned Hamas about the credibility of the video after its release. Hamas sources denied any knowledge of the issue, signaling that the footage may not have been a propaganda op, as initially estimated.
Late last year, this incident provoked a lot of commentary, including allegations that Iran carried out the kidnapping and transferred the two Israelis over to Hamas, which again denied any connection to the matter. But amid stone cold silence from Tel Aviv, media and private speculation on the incident soon died down.
A can of worms and a smokeless fire
In the new video broadcast by Al-Jazeera, two Israeli passports bearing the names of David Perry and David Ben Rozi were shown. An Aquafina water bottle was handed to one of the prisoners. This brand of water is manufactured by a subsidiary of the American PepsiCo Group and is sold in a number of Arab countries, including Lebanon, Jordan, and Libya.
Some commenters noted that Ben Rozi’s petrochemical expertise might suggest he was possibly kidnapped in Libya. Others speculated that the two Israelis could have been in Lebanon, given plans for a new infrastructure for Hamas there, and the group’s request for Hezbollah to mediate a Hamas return to Syria in exchange for activating resistance ops against Israel in southern Syria.
The often provocative Al Jazeera channel opened this can of worms more than a year after the alleged kidnapping incident, but there is no smoke without fire. It is no secret that the program presenter who aired the video, Tamer al-Mishal, has a close relationship with the Hamas military wing, Al-Qassam Brigades. He has obtained exclusive information and videos from Al-Qassam on several occasions, and so the November report has renewed suspicions of a Hamas connection to the two missing Israelis.
Not a single official Israeli statement was made until the broadcasting of this episode. The prime minister’s spokesman, Ofir Gendelman, broke the silence after it aired to offer this denial: “The news reported by Al-Jazeera about the kidnapping of two Israeli officers is false. The two people depicted in the report are not Israelis and have nothing to do with Israel.” On his Twitter account, Gendelman added that the Qatari channel had become a “platform for propaganda for Hamas.”
But the video shows one of the two cuffed captives speaking in Hebrew. “Please help us,” he says.
Hamas remained silent through all this. Many associated this silence with the resistance group’s renewed confidence, demonstrated during ongoing negotiations over four captured Israeli soldiers in Gaza, and its insistence on closing the deal on its terms – a position that does seem to suggest Hamas has strong cards held close to its chest.
Remember Code 1111
A few months back, at the end of May 2021, Hamas Gaza Leader Yahya Sinwar said his movement was confident in its ability to win the rights of Palestinian prisoners from Israel. At that time, an Egyptian delegation headed by Intelligence Minister Abbas Kamel was in Gaza to discuss the aftermath of the Sword of Jerusalem battle.
Sinwar then made an interesting statement to journalists: “We are confident that we are able to extract our rights. Quote me on the record saying the number 1111, and you will remember this number well.” He did not elaborate.
Many have linked this number to the number of prisoners that the movement will demand for release, while others have linked it to the number of missiles in the possession of the resistance. Both may be wrong.
The Cradle has learned that the number of prisoner releases demanded by Hamas is much greater. Keep in mind that there are many more mediators involved in these negotiations since 2014 than in previous prisoner exchange process – mainly Egypt, Qatar, the United Nations, Russia, Germany, and other European countries.
This time, discussions have revolved around “cleansing prisons”, that is, emptying prisons of Palestinian prisoners – not completely, but rather by releasing new demographics, including prisoners with long-term sentences, political and military leaders, Jerusalemites, 1948 Palestinians, women, children, the sick, and administrative detainees.
Reports estimate that the number of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails exceeds 4,700. If Sinwar’s “number 1111” is linked to each of the four Israeli captive, then the likely outcome is the release of 4,444 Palestinian prisoners, which achieves the desired goal.
Of abductions, the Gilboa 6 and phased exchanges
The Cradle has learned of another important development. During the last Hamas delegation visit to Cairo in early October, Sinwar spoke plainly to the Egyptians. The gist of the conversation was that if Israeli intransigence continues in this prisoner swap deal, the resistance will launch another abduction operation to put more pressure on Tel Aviv.
New reports of ‘great progress’ in the exchange negotiation increased during that trip, but as usual, everything suddenly came to a halt. Keep in mind that these swap deals typically take a long time: the last one took five years (2007–2011) to complete, was interrupted by the 2008–2009 and 2012 wars, and the assassination of the lead negotiator Ahmed al-Jabari. The current negotiating process has taken nearly seven years (2014-2021) with yet more wars and confrontations in between.
The Cradle spoke with sources in Hamas to find out why the exchange negotiations had stopped. They confirmed, instead that the process was starting to move forward again. First, the Americans have asked the Israelis not to link the swap deal with other issues related to Gaza; and second, the old main obstacle has recently been overcome.
This obstacle was a condition that Israel frees the Palestinian detainees who were re-arrested following their release in the last ‘Gilad Shalit deal’ in late 2011, and that it revokes their new sentences.
The release of these prisoners has been agreed to, and their number (about 50 to 70) will be excluded from the final prisoner count in the new exchange deal. This was an achievement, given that the same offer was rejected by former PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.
But other obstacles have also emerged. Israel wants Hamas to keep the total number of released prisoners to no more than those freed in the ‘Wafa al-Ahrar’ (Shalit) deal; in other words, their number should not exceed 1,000.
This limit obviously serves to curtail Israeli domestic criticism against Bennett and Lapid, whose fragile government is reluctant to agree to a number higher than the one Netanyahu had allowed.
A further Israeli condition, which Hamas categorically rejected, is that these 1,000 prisoners must exclude high-ranking Palestinian leaders and most ‘lifers.’
Another setback was the Hamas condition that Israel release the six high-profile prisoners who had escaped from Gilboa prison, and were re-arrested in September. While the resistance has publicly committed itself to securing the release of these prisoners, Israel sees it as a challenge that it should not accept, simply because it would create an even greater embarrassment than the escape itself.
In that same vein, Tel Aviv prefers Hamas to reveal the fate of the Israeli soldiers during the exchange, because whatever the outcome – dead or alive – they can’t then be held responsible. Hamas faces two options – the first is for the deal to be conducted in two phases (disclosing their fate, and then implementing the major prisoner release), or the second, conducted in one phase (disclosing their fate while simultaneously releasing prisoners). Either option would relieve the Israeli government.
Finally, there’s the issue of the two new Israeli prisoners allegedly held by the Freedom Movement. If this information proves to be true and either Hamas or another Palestinian resistance organization is involved, the swap price for Israel may even increase – six Israeli captives instead of four, at least two of which are proven to be alive. If not, Hamas sources stress that this issue will not affect the course of the ongoing negotiations.
Escalating repression in the face of fear
In a related development, Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said during his 11 November speech that Israel’s severe punishment of Palestinian prisoners over the past few months was related to the “great achievement” that the Palestinians made in the last war. He believed Israel’s repressive behavior to be “a sign of anxiety, fear, and panic because whoever resorts to this level of violence and this level of injustice is weak, frightened, and anxious.”
The same Hamas sources say that Nasrallah’s analysis is correct, adding that this repression intensified after the Sword of Jerusalem battle and, more recently, after “the victories achieved by the prisoners of the Freedom Tunnel, who were released from the maximum-security Gilboa prison, as well as the victories achieved by the administrative prisoners in obtaining freedom by force of their hunger strike.”
For the latter action, the Israelis initially tried to impose harsh measures on all Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) detainees, but they went on a mass hunger strike that quickly ended after their demands were met.
The PIJ threat of military escalations has also served to shorten the duration of the battle inside the prisons. Later, the movement thanked the Egyptian authorities for their intervention in the case.
In the midst of these events, prisoner Miqdad al-Qawasmeh was granted his release for next February, after a hunger strike that lasted for 113 days, and which he ended on 11 November.
But five other prisoners remain on hunger strike: Kayed al-Fasfous (on hunger strike for 122 days), Alaa al-Araj (97 days), Hisham Abu Hawash (88 days), Ayyad al-Harimi (52 days), and Louay al-Ashqar (35 days).
To the brink of death for release
Palestinian activists believe that Israel is taking revenge on these prisoners by allowing them to remain on hunger strike for almost three months. While Palestinians see this as a “miracle” and “legendary heroism,” the Israeli occupation has more malicious goals. It knows that eventually a date must be set for the release of the hunger-striking captives, but it tries to severely damage their health by allowing the prisoners to reach the brink of death before doing so.
In any case, no Palestinian prisoner has ever voluntarily stopped a hunger strike without obtaining his demands. Palestinian prisoners are now increasingly standing firm in their hunger strikes due to the knowledge that the resistance is behind them, and that a major prisoner exchange will end their suffering.
If the Palestinian resistance is confident that, after seven years of negotiations, their odds for a mass prisoner release are good, the question is why? Does this have anything to do with reports of the two missing Israelis? Or are there further circumstances that remain hidden behind the scenes?