Hamas’s military wing claimed on Monday night that “the health of one of its Israeli prisoners has deteriorated,” after years in which repeated attempts to reach a prisoner exchange deal between the two sides have hit a dead end.
The terror group currently holds two living Israelis – Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed – as well as the bodies of two Israeli soldiers: Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin.
Abu Obeida, the spokesperson for Hamas’s Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, did not specify whether Mengistu or al-Sayed were suffering from health issues, nor how serious they were. But he vowed that Hamas would publish proof of its claims in the coming hours.
Mengistu and al-Sayed both had a history of mental illness. The two Israeli citizens crossed the Gaza border voluntarily between 2014 and 2015 and have subsequently been held prisoner by Hamas.
In a statement, the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office neither confirmed nor disputed the Hamas claims. Instead, it said it holds Hamas accountable for the state of the captured civilians.
“Hamas proved again tonight that it is a cynical and criminal terrorist organization, which holds mentally ill civilians in violation of all international conventions and laws, as well as the bodies of fallen Israeli soldiers,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s office said.
“The State of Israel will continue its efforts, mediated by Egypt, to bring the captives and the missing back home,” the PMO concluded.
Israeli military correspondents, who are regularly briefed off-the-record by senior Israeli officials, reported that the announcement was “psychological warfare.”
“This is a provocation by Hamas on the eighth anniversary of Operation Protective Edge. We do not recognize any change in their health, ”one official told the Kan Public Broadcaster, referring to the 2014 Gaza war between Israel and the terror group.
Israel and Hamas have held indirect talks in an attempt to reach a prisoner exchange deal. A similar deal to release Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit from Hamas’s clutches saw 1,027 Palestinian security prisoners released, many of them convicted terrorists.
The two soldiers, Shaul and Goldin, were killed during the 2014 Gaza war. Both their families have repeatedly petitioned the Israeli government to push for a deal to receive their children’s bodies.
Israel has worked to secure the two living men and the two bodies’ return to their families. Egyptian intelligence, which maintains close ties to both Israel and Hamas, often serves as the key intermediary.
Those efforts have so far failed to yield results. In 2021, Israeli defense officials held a round of talks described as the most significant and serious to date, in light of the added pressure on Hamas from the pandemic coronavirus, which has been growing steadily in the beleaguered Gaza Strip.
Hamas is considered highly unlikely to concede on the matter of the mass release of Palestinian security prisoners, a highly contentious move that no Israeli government is likely to approve.
The 2011 exchange to secure the release of Shalit was deeply controversial, with many in Israel’s security establishment at the time claiming it was lopsided in Hamas’s favor. Many of the 1,027 prisoners released later returned to terror – such as Yahya Sinwar, who now serves as Hamas’s Gaza governor.