Egypt said to probe Hamas over Israeli hostages in Gaza

Members of the Izz a-din al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas, take part in the funeral of a Palestinian who died in a tunnel collapse, March 4, 2016. (AFP/SAID KHATIB)

Egyptian authorities have reportedly requested that Hamas hand over information about the condition of two Israeli citizens who crossed into Gaza on their own accord and the bodies of two soldiers killed in 2014’s Gaza war.

The Egyptians requested the information from Hamas while a delegation from the Gaza-based terror group was visiting Cairo last month in a bid to repair souring relations between the two sides, according to a report in the London-based Arabic news site al Araby al Jadeed.

Sunday’s report follows a rare comment on the matter Friday by the spokesperson for Hamas’s Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades military wing, Abu Obeida, who denied statements by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying that Israel was working to free its captured citizens from Hamas.

“There are no talks or negotiations relating to the prisoners,” said Abu Obeida, who accused Netanyahu of “lying to his people” and “deceiving the families of the captive soldiers.”

Last Monday, the London-based daily Asharq al-Awsat quoted a source in the Gaza-based Islamist group as saying that though there are currently no direct negotiations between Hamas and Israel, international mediators are trying to broker a prisoner swap.

If Egypt — with which Israel is known to maintain quiet yet high-level intelligence coordination — is indeed probing Hamas for information on the Israeli civilians and IDF soldiers’ remains allegedly held by Hamas, that could indicate it is the above-mentioned international broker. And indeed, Sunday’s al Araby al Jadeed report linked Cairo’s request for information and Netanyahu’s pronouncement as to the existence of indirect negotiations.

Abu Ubeida (right), the official spokesperson of the Palestinian militant group Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigade, the armed wing of Hamas, at a press conference on July 3, 2014, in Gaza City (photo credit: AFP/Mohammed Abed)

Abu Ubeida (right), the official spokesperson of the Palestinian militant group Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigade, the armed wing of Hamas, at a press conference on July 3, 2014, in Gaza City (photo credit: AFP/Mohammed Abed)

In conjunction with the statement by the Qassam Brigades spokesperson, which was made on Hamas’s al Aqsa television station, the group published pictures of the four Israelis allegedly in their possession.

It was the first time the Islamist group seemed to publicly admit to holding the remains of the slain Israeli soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, as well as two Israelis who walked into Gaza of their accord: 29-year-old Avraham Mengistu, and a Bedouin-Israeli citizen whose name has not been released for publication.

According to the al Araby al Jadeed report, Cairo’s probe into the captured Israelis followed an inquiry by the Hamas delegation about the condition of four of its fighters who were abducted by Egyptian security officials on their way from Rafah to Cairo in August 2015. The Times of Israel reported that the four Hamas fighters were navy commandospossibly on their way to Iran for training.

Israel and Hamas, which it considers a terror group, do not officially maintain direct contacts, and any deal would have to be mediated by international parties.

IDF soldiers Oron Shaul (left) and Hadar Goldin (right) (Flash90)

IDF soldiers Oron Shaul (left) and Hadar Goldin (right) (Flash90)

In 2011, kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was released in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian detainees, in a deal brokered with the help of a German diplomat.

Hamas has reportedlyrefused to even entertain the possibility of negotiating a swap until Israel releases all Palestinians rearrested after being freed in the 2011 deal for Shalit.

The Islamist group is also demanding the talks be held separately from all other issues.

In his statements last Friday, the Qassam Brigades spokesman alluded to the group’s high demands.

“The enemy will not get information about the four without paying a clear price before and after the negotiations,” Abu Obeida said.

At a rally in Gaza last July, Hamas displayed a huge model fist holding a mockup of Shaul’s ID card and two other IDF dogtags with question marks on them, implying that it holds two Israelis captive.

Little is known of the whereabouts of Mengistu, who climbed over the Gaza security fence in September last year. Family members have described him as “unwell” and urged Hamas to consider his condition and return him to Israel immediately.

Avraham Mengistu, 28, who Israel believes is being held captive by Hamas. (Facebook)

Avraham Mengistu, 28, who Israel believes is being held captive by Hamas. (Facebook)

Mengistu, who suffered from unspecified mental issues, was rejected for IDF service. Hamas, however, continues to refer to him as a captured soldier.

The second hostage, an Israeli from the Bedouin village of Hura, reportedly entered Gaza via the Erez Crossing in April. According to an Israeli official, the man has mild psychological issues and has a history of entering Jordan, Egypt and Gaza.

Avi Issacharoff contributed to this report.

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