Hamas said Tuesday that the ball was in Israel's court regarding a prisoner swap after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu indicated his readiness to consider the issue of an exchange for two captives and the bodies of two Israeli soldiers who fell in the 2014 conflict.
"The initiative by [Hamas leader] Yahya Sinwar regarding the captive Israeli soldiers is an exchange for a number of elderly prisoners, women, the sick and children," said a statement by the terror group that runs the Gaza Strip.
"The ball is in the Israeli government's court and it is up to them to take steps," Hamas said.
The group issued the statement shortly after Israel called Tuesday for the immediate resumption of talks on the subject after the Palestinian territory's Hamas rulers said they might be willing to move forward on the issue.
According to a report in the London-based pan-Arab Al-Araby Al-Jadeed media outlet, Israel last week linked any future coronavirus aid to Gaza on progress in efforts to recover the bodies of the soldiers, Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, and two civilians, Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, who separately slipped into the enclave.
The Islamist group has never stated whether the two soldiers are dead or alive, but neither has it provided a sign of life, as it has done in a previous similar case.Israel considers the two to have fallen in battle.
Hamas has said that returning the four would require negotiating a prisoner swap and would not be done in exchange for humanitarian aid.
In a statement on Tuesday, Netanyahu's office said his national security team "stands ready to take constructive action with the goal of returning the fallen and the missing and ending the affair, and is calling for an immediate dialogue via mediators."
According to several sources, Egypt is mediating between the parties. In past rounds of talks, Egypt, Qatar, and the United Nations have served as intermediaries.
Hamas' Gaza leader Yahya Sinwar has rejected the linkage to coronavirus aid but on Thursday said he saw "a possible initiative to revive this issue" of the Israelis held in the territory if Israel frees jailed Palestinians.
"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."
It appears that Hamas has dropped its demand to include prisoners rearrested by Israel after their release in the 2011 deal for IDF soldier Gilad Shalit that saw nearly 1,000 Palestinian prisoners go free.
Hamas raised the possibility of a deal two-and-a-half weeks ago, when the coronavirus pandemic was already spreading.
Musa Dudin, who holds the Prisoner's Portfolio for the terror group, said his organization had relayed a proposal to Israel but was rejected. Hamas is prepared to enter negotiations at any time, he said.
Hamas, hoping to head off a contagion it says has so far caused 13 cases in blockaded Gaza, wants Israel to ease economic conditions. Israel is also loathed to deal with a new humanitarian crisis on its border with Gaza, now sealed by both sides.