Israel wants Palestinians serving lengthy jail terms to be exiled if released in swap

Hamas wants political figures including Marwan Barghouti and Ahmad Saadat to be exchanged for Israeli hostages

A Palestinian prisoner gestures after being released from jail in Israel in exchange for Israeli hostages in November. AFP
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Israel is insisting that Palestinians serving long jail terms or life in its prisons will have to go into exile if released as part of any deal with Hamas, according to sources familiar with Gaza truce negotiations.

They said Hamas wanted to swap female Israeli soldiers in its custody for 50 Palestinians each, of whom 30 must be high-profile Palestinians sentenced to life or lengthy jail terms in security-related cases.

Hamas is thought to hold five female Israeli soldiers, and it is therefore pushing for 250 detainees to be released, with 150 of them high-profile political prisoners.

According to the sources Israel has said it is willing to free just five Palestinians for each of the female soldiers.

Top of Hamas’s list is Marwan Barghouti, a popular leader of the mainstream Fatah faction sentenced to life in prison in 2004. Mr Barghouti is widely viewed as a possible successor to President Mahmoud Abbas, who is 88 years old.

Other names high on the list are Ibrahim Hamed, the commander of Hamas's military wing in the occupied West Bank, who has been held since 2006 and is serving 54 life sentences, and Ahmad Saadat, the secretary general of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine militant group.

Palestinian politicians have a long history of serving from exile as part of Israel's wider policy of expelling Palestinians and deporting their leaders.

For much of its history, the Palestine Liberation Organisation operated as the internationally recognised representative of Palestinians from abroad, first from Jordan, then from Lebanon and finally from Tunisia, until the signing of the Oslo Accords and the return of PLO officials to the West Bank in 1993.

Some of the most senior Hamas members still live in exile, including leaders Ismail Haniyeh and Khaled Mashaal, who currently live in Qatar. Others operate from Lebanon and Iran.

In 1992, Israel deported 417 Palestinian activists from militant Islamic groups including Hamas, to a no-man's land outside its then self-declared security zone in south Lebanon.

The war in Gaza, in which more than 32,000 Palestinians have been killed and tens of thousands injured, has reportedly exacerbated differences between Hamas's leadership in exile and those on the ground in Gaza.

The war is seen as having shifted power within the group towards the Gaza-based leadership led by Hamas's overall leader Yahya Sinwar and the commanders of its military wing, the Qassam Brigades.

They are thought to have been behind the decision to launch the October 7 attacks on Israel which sparked the current war, when militants killed about 1,200 people in southern Israel and took around 240 others hostage.

During a week-long truce in late November Hamas released 100 hostages in exchange for around 300 Palestinians imprisoned in Israel.

Of the estimated 130 hostages that remain, at least 30 are believed to have died in Hamas’s custody from Israel’s bombardment or lack of food and medicine.

The terms of a hostage and prisoner swap between Hamas and Israel have been among the core issues over which the two arch-enemies are at odds in the negotiations, mediated by the US, Egypt and Qatar.

According to the sources, Hamas is ready to release a first batch of about 40 women, elderly, minor and ailing hostages in exchange for between 1,000 and 1,500 Palestinians held in Israeli jails. Israel has said it is prepared to free at least 700 prisoners.

The remaining hostages, whose number include active-duty male Israeli soldiers, will be used by Hamas to secure freedom for an as-yet unspecified number of Palestinian prisoners. They are likely to be in the low thousands.

Hamas is also demanding that those released from Israeli jails include about 170 Palestinians who were re-arrested by Israel after their release in 2011 as part of a deal that freed an Israeli soldier Hamas had held for years.

An Israeli official quoted by Reuters this week said the US has made a “bridging proposal” for the number of Palestinian detainees to be released by Israel in exchange for every hostage freed by Hamas in any new Gaza truce.

“During the negotiations (in Doha), significant gaps came to light on the question of the ratio” of detainees to be released for each of the 40 hostages whose potential recovery is under discussion, said the official.

“The United States put a bridging proposal on the table, to which Israel responded positively. Hamas's response is pending,” added the official, who gave no further details.

Israel and Hamas are also at odds over the militant group’s demand that an initial six-week ceasefire proposed by the mediators be followed by a permanent cessation of hostilities and Israel's complete withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

Updated: March 25, 2024, 2:56 PM