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Spies and emirs: the difficult negotiation to free those kidnapped by Hamas

The release of citizens kidnapped by Hamas has always been a chess game played simultaneously by half a dozen actors. And some of them, in no hurry to finish the game. Since Saturday, however, this duel is the greatest that Israel’s history has ever experienced, as it faces the problem of hundreds of captives.

But in addition, among those captured there are citizens of very different nationalities, whose countries can try to play their own game to free their nationals. The United States, for example, has already sent two hostage release experts to Israel. In North American media, the possibility is beginning to be considered that their country will face a crisis similar to the one that occurred in 1979, when 66 American citizens were detained in Tehran after the Ayatollahs’ revolution.

The last hostage released by Hamas was Gilad Shalit, a soldier kidnapped on the Gaza border on June 25, 2006 and who was not released until five years later, in exchange for the release of a thousand Palestinian prisoners from prison. Although it is too early to know how the negotiation will be carried out, various Tel Aviv newspapers are already analyzing what the political game that will be started to try to free the victims may be. The key meeting could take place today in Berlin. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz will meet there with the Emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. In principle, this summit was planned to analyze the purchase of gas. However, over the weekend, Scholz offered to serve as a mediator in the hostage crisis to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

German secret services

For journalist Yossi Melman, security writer and intelligence correspondent for the newspaper Haaretz, Berlin’s role is key. «In previous episodes of negotiations, the BND – the German secret services – have managed to open negotiation channels that end in Hamas. It must be taken into account that this task is not easy, because the terrorist leaders are not accessible at all and, among other issues, they do not access any type of usual communication channel to avoid being detected,” he told this newspaper.

Another key piece is Qatar. The economy of the Gaza Strip is supported by the aid that this Gulf country sends to this territory, which exceeds 360 million dollars annually. In the various agreements reached between the Palestinian National Authority in Gaza and Israel, one of the most important is how to get Qatari money to the strip. In this sense, Doha’s ability to influence and the money it gets from its oil reserves will be decisive. “But not only because of its dollars, Qatar is very close in its ideology to the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas was born from the approaches of this jihadist group,” says Melman. This discretion, and the military organization of Hamas, have meant that, for now, no abductee in Gaza has been forcibly released.

Gilad Shalit, days after being released by Hamas in exchange for the release of a thousand prisoners from prisons.

A third actor in this negotiation is the Egyptian secret services. Gaza borders this country to the south, and there is the Rafah border crossing, the only customs office that is not controlled by Israel. But Egypt has also not stopped maintaining relations with the Palestinian terrorists at any time, not even when it destroyed the tunnels with which Hamas entered Egypt and which were vital for its smuggling networks.

The Mukhabarat

This particular relationship between Hamas and Egypt has been used by Israel to conduct indirect negotiations. For example, the release of soldier Shalit was made possible through the intermediation of Cairo. In the case of Israeli armed operations in Gaza, it is Egyptian spies who mediate to create humanitarian corridors or determine how to recover bodies after each armed intervention.

In that playing field, the key figure today is Abbas Kamel, a military man who became chief of staff of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and who for five years has directed the Mukhabarat, Egypt’s secret services. Kamel maintains fluid relations with Hamas and Israel and has intervened in all attempts to reach agreements to reduce tension in the area.

In any case, the upcoming negotiations may be the most complex in Israel’s history. And they will take place in the midst of the armed operations that are going to begin in Gaza. To begin with, Hamas has assured that it will execute a hostage for each bombing on the strip. For Melman, a key factor will be the pressure from the families of those kidnapped. «They have not yet mobilized because the information is confusing but it seems that Netanyahu and his government act as if the hostages do not exist. But that will change as soon as the victims’ data begins to arrive.

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