Indirect negotiations between Hamas and Israel on a prisoner exchange have been suspended after the two sides disagreed over several issues, including the number of Palestinians Israel should release, Egyptian security officials said on Thursday.
News of the talks’ suspension came a day after the Egyptian officials said the two sides were nearing a deal. But the officials said they reached an unexpected deadlock over the Palestinian prisoners and Israeli demands viewed by the Palestinians as unrealistic.
The Egyptian-mediated negotiations were expected to resume soon, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to brief the media. This week’s talks were held behind closed doors.
Hamas leaders have been indirectly negotiating the deal with Israel while in Cairo this week, with officials from Egypt’s General Directorate of Intelligence, the country’s top spy agency, acting as the go-between.
Israel does not negotiate directly with Hamas, which it considers a terrorist group. The Egyptian intelligence officials have traditionally taken the lead in dealing with both Israel and the Palestinians.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s government wants to see a prisoners’ exchange deal reached and implemented before it allows the reconstruction of the Gaza strip to go ahead, according to the officials.
They said Israel viewed the 1,111 Palestinians Hamas wants to be released from jail as too many and objected to the release of up to 12 inmates believed to be members of militants groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
According to Israeli media reports, Hamas is believed to hold two Israeli civilians — Avner Mengistou and Hisham Al Sayed — and the bodies of two Israeli soldiers — Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin — both killed in the 2014 war between the two sides.
Late on Wednesday, Israeli negotiators told the Egyptian mediators that they agreed to maintaining the truce with Hamas, which was mediated by the Egyptians to end an 11-day war between the two sides in May.
The Israelis, however, have yet to decide on the duration of the truce and the mechanisms needed to maintain it, according to the officials. Hamas wants it to last up to three years.
However, the Palestinians categorically rejected last-minute Israeli demands that Hamas and other Gaza-based militant groups halt upgrading their military capabilities, especially their arsenal of rockets, and the construction of tunnels.
In last summer’s war, at least 250 Palestinians were killed in hundreds of Israeli air strikes on the Gaza Strip. Rockets fired by Gaza militants killed 13 people in Israel.
Since their truce mediation in May, the Egyptians have been encouraged to do more to pave the way for a resumption of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, which collapsed seven years ago.
As well as mediating a prisoners’ exchange and strengthening the truce, they are seeking to reconcile Palestinian factions as a prelude to Palestinian elections and, finally, a resumption of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations.
Hamas and the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority have been at odds since the militant group in 2017 seized Gaza from the PA, which exercises limited self-rule in the West Bank. Hamas rules Gaza.