The photographs of the four men were all old ones. It was not clear from the statement whether the two men who as of last report had been alive still are.
In 2014, Avraham Mengistu, 29, an Israeli civilian and a former soldier, crossed into Gaza. And at an unknown time, an unnamed Bedouin from southern Israel also entered Gaza. Both did so on their own volition. Their families have each stated the captives suffer from mental illness; and Israel has asked for their unconditional release on humanitarian grounds.
Hamas is also likely holding the remains of two soldiers the Israeli military said were killed in Gaza in 2014 during the summer war, Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, both of whom were pictured in the video report.
According to local media, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last week that progress has been made on talks to secure a release.
In the clip Abu Obaida refuted Netanyahu’s statement. “Netanyahu is lying to his people and to his army and we ensure that there is no line of communication about the hostages,” Abu Obaida said in the video.
The video suggested that Israel had to do more to learn anything about the four men’s fates: “The only way they [Israel] can get information is by paying their dues, which are clear, before and after the negotiations,” Abu Obaida said.
The condition of the two Israeli civilians remains unknown. Hamas has stated in the past that it wants Israel to release 4,000 Palestinian detainees in a potential swap– 3,000 more than those let go in the 2011 deal between Israel and Hamas over the exchange of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
The details on the captured Israelis are murky.
The photograph and video statement break new ground on the prisoner situation as the Gaza group had refused to state in the past if it is holding the Israelis. Though in fact Abu Obaida stopped short of fully admitting Hamas has the prisoners, a first step in a potential process to release or exchange the captured, his statements suggest some form of preliminary talks were underway to forge a prisoner trade.
Gershon Baskin, an Israeli expert who is trusted by some Hamas officials, told Mondoweiss his sources say there is no indication any agreement is in the works.
Baskin is an independent negotiator not contracted by any authority, but working to arbitrate the release of the Israelis. He is in contact with the Mengistu family and has made some concrete steps of good faith. He turned over to Hamas a copy of the former soldier’s military discharge papers to demonstrate he did not enter Gaza as a combatant. Despite that gesture, Baskin said, “Hamas believes he is a soldier,” sent by Israel to spy.
With his lines to Hamas’s political bureau, Baskin was instrumental in the 2011 Shalit prisoner exchange. But this time around Baskin is not sure what to make of the video.
Baskin noted “there is no proof of life.” In the build-up to the Shalit exchange where Baskin arranged for the captured solider to pass a note onto his family. “It was a much clearer situation,” he said.
In this case, however, Hamas released photographs of the four that it seemingly got by scouring the internet, and Israel has not made a response to the video. Hamas has been careful not to make a full disclosure, which could be because it seeks to use the information as a bargaining chip in a future deal– hence Abu Obaida’s reference to Israel “paying its dues” in advance of talks.
“There is no way to have a direct contact with the guys who are running the show on the kidnapping,” Baskin said. Baskin’s sources have led him to the conclusion that there are “three or four guys in Gaza” who control the prisoner exchange process for al-Qassam. He does not believe that Abu Obaida is one of them, which raises the specter of the video release playing a role in hostility within dueling branches of Hamas.
“One of the tools that is used by the power struggle in Hamas is the media,” Baskin said, later adding “everything is a possibility” as to why the video was released now.
After the broadcast Al Aqsa Television promoted on social media al-Qassam’s announcement using the Arabic hashtag “counting your soldiers,” seemingly intended to embarrass or possibly pressure Netanyahu. In one tweet a group of children are recorded tallying up to to four, signifying the number of nabbed Israelis. The campaign failed to gain traction, with the highest number of retweets trailing below 50.