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Coronavirus: Israel and Palestine weigh 'opportunity' for prisoner exchange deal

Hamas chief Yahya Sinwar said 'there is a possibility for an initiative to move forward with the file' of exchanging prisoners
Hamas's Yahya Sinwar visits the construction site of a field hospital to house coronavirus patients in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on 23 March 2020 (AFP)

Israeli officials and Palestinian leaders of the Hamas movement in the besieged Gaza Strip have exchanged media statements raising prospects of an “an opportunity” to release some Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the return of remains of Israeli soldiers, amid fears arising from the coronavirus pandemic.

Israel has registered 7,030 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, including 39 deaths. In the occupied Palestinian territories, meanwhile, 171 cases have been officially recorded, including one death in the West Bank.

According to Palestinian prisoners' rights group Addameer, some 5,000 Palestinian are currently held in more than 20 Israeli detention centres.

Meanwhile, Hamas is believed to hold the remains of two Israeli soldiers killed during the 2014 war on the Gaza Strip.

Israeli military and political officials told Maariv newspaper that there was a “window of opportunity” to advance a prisoner exchange deal with Hamas, saying that “important meetings” were being held to discuss the issue at the Ministry of Defence.

According to Maariv, advancing the prisoner exchange deal with Hamas, the ruling party in the Gaza Strip, would occur through a “humanitarian aid package".

Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar said on Thursday that “there is a possibility for an initiative to move forward with the (prisoner swap) file".

“The Israeli occupation would do a humanitarian deed greater than just an exchange process, by releasing Palestinian prisoners who are sick, women, and it is possible that we offer partially something back,” Sinwar said, without elaborating or explaining.

Sinwar warned Israel that the armed wing of Hamas was “monitoring with great concern” reports that the coronavirus was spreading among Palestinian prisoners detained by Israel.

'If we found that people infected by coronavirus in the Gaza Strip can’t breathe, we will cut the breath of six million Zionists'

- Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar

Israeli Minister of Defence Naftali Bennett earlier this week argued that the entry of humanitarian aid to Gaza - which has been under a devastating blockade for nearly 13 years - should be conditional on Hamas handing over the remains of the two Israeli soldiers.

“The moment there is talk of the humanitarian world in Gaza - Israel also has humanitarian needs, which are mainly the recovery of the fallen,” Bennett said.

"I think that we need to enter a broad dialogue about Gaza's and our humanitarian needs. It would not be right to disconnect these things," he added.

“If we found that people infected by coronavirus in the Gaza Strip can’t breathe, we will cut the breath of six million Zionists, and we will take what we want from you by force,” Sinwar said in reply to Bennett’s comments.

On Thursday, the Israeli Prison Service quarantined six Palestinians in Ofer prison. They had been in contact with a recently released prisoner who has since tested positive for Covid-19.