By Dan Williams and Nidal al-Mughrabi
JERUSALEM/GAZA (Reuters) – Israel called on Tuesday for the immediate resumption of indirect talks on the return of two Israeli civilians and the remains of two soldiers held for years in Gaza, but the territory’s Islamist rulers Hamas dismissed the overture.
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The Israeli appeal came in a statement from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office after Hamas said last week it might be willing to move forward on the issue.
Israel last week linked any future coronavirus-linked aid to neighboring Gaza on progress in efforts to recover the two soldiers – who it said were killed in the 2014 Gaza war – and the two civilians who separately slipped into the enclave.
Hamas has said it holds all four. The Islamist group has never stated whether the soldiers are dead or alive, but neither has it provided a sign of life, as it has done in a previous similar case. The families of the two civilians said they suffered from mental health issues.
Hamas has said that returning the four Israelis would require negotiating a prisoner swap and would not be done in exchange for humanitarian aid.
In its statement, the Israeli prime minister’s office said Netanyahu’s national security team "stands ready to take constructive action with the goal of returning the fallen and the missing and of ending the affair, and are calling for an immediate dialogue via mediators."
In past rounds of talks, Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations have served as intermediaries.
But Hamas official Moussa Dodin on Tuesday dismissed Netanyahu’s offer to resume talks, saying it was not serious and warning the premier: "(The Israelis) may be forced to negotiate under more complicated conditions" in the future.
Yehya al-Sinwar, Hamas chief in Gaza, had said last week that he saw "a possible initiative to revive (the) issue" of the four Israelis if Israel frees jailed Palestinians, though he rejected the linkage to coronavirus aid.
"A prisoner swap will exact a big price" from Israel, he told Hamas’s Al-Aqsa TV, saying that were it to start by releasing sick, old and female prisoners "we may offer something partial in return".
Hamas, which has 13 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus in blockaded Gaza and hopes to curb its spread, wants Israel to ease economic conditions. Israel is also loath to deal with a new humanitarian crisis on its border with Gaza, now sealed by both sides.
Israel in the past has freed hundreds of jailed Palestinians, including many militants, in exchange for the recovery of dead or captive Israelis.
But rightists in Netanyahu’s coalition government, including Defence Minister Naftali Bennett, oppose any further releases of Palestinian militants.
Writing by Dan Williams and Nidal al-Mughrabi; Editing Jeffrey Heller and Bernadette Baum