The Palestinian Islamist group Hamas has been engaged in talks with Israel over the return of two Israeli civilians believed to be held in the Gaza Strip, Avraham Mengistu and a young Bedouin man whose name was not cleared for publication, senior Palestinian sources said.
The sources confirmed Hamas’s recent statement to the effect that Mengistu, who crossed the border in September, is in Hamas captivity but is nevertheless safe and sound. The organization’s new stance on Mengistu contrasts with its previous version, according to which the Israeli man had crossed into Egypt via a tunnel. Hamas officials, however, refused to comment on the matter during a conversation with The Times of Israel.
Meanwhile, Hamas has been sending messages to Israel regrading its desire to reach an agreement on a long-term truce in Gaza. The messages are being relayed through various international mediators, including former Middle East Quartet envoy Tony Blair, who has made several visits to Doha, the capital of Qatar, where he met with the head of Hamas’s political bureau, Khaled Mashaal.
Palestinian and Israeli sources told The Times of Israel that the two men met at least three times, both while Blair still held the position of Quartet envoy and after his official retirement in late June. Among the issues raised by Mashaal during those meetings were the two Israelis in Gaza, the return of the remains of IDF soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, the lifting of the blockade over the Strip, and the construction of a seaport and airport in the Hamas-controlled territory.
According to reports in the Gulf Wednesday, a major development in the talks is set to take place next week, though Israel has denied the possibility of reaching an agreement with Hamas over a long-term truce and the release of prisoners and soldiers’ remains. Indeed, Israel recently stressed to Palestinian officials that it would not allow the establishment of a seaport or airport — a key Hamas demand — citing security considerations.
During one meeting between Mashaal and Blair, the former expressed his displeasure with Egypt’s attitude toward the organization — Egypt has partnered with Israel in enforcing strict sanctions on the Strip.
Mashaal also asked to meet with foreign ministers from the European Union. According to Mashaal, Hamas demands a safe passage between Gaza and the West Bank as part of a comprehensive ceasefire with Israel, though he indicated that, as far as his organization was concerned, the truce would not apply to the Palestinian-claimed territories outside the Strip. Mashaal further demanded that Israel free Hamas members of parliament still in prison as well as all members of the group who were released as part of the deal for the release of IDF soldier Gilan Shalit but re-arrested when three Israeli youths were abducted and killed by Palestinians in the West Bank in June 2014.
Mashaal also presented his outline for the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip. According to Mashaal’s proposal, a Norwegian committee will supervise the rebuilding, while a Swedish-Swiss commission will oversee the payment of salaries to Hamas officials. Furthermore, power plants and water treatment plants will be built in Gaza, and the foundations for a seaport and airport will be placed. Blair, for his part, emphasized that he is in contact with the Israeli government and the US.
The British politician would not make any further comments on the matter.
By Avi Issacharoff
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