Israel seeks immediate resumption of talks on citizens held in Gaza

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Israel seeks immediate resumption of talks on citizens held in Gaza

FILE PHOTO: Palestinian man playing the role of Israeli soldier Oron Shaul stands in a mock jail during a rally in solidarity with Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, in the northern Gaza Strip

JERUSALEM/GAZA (Reuters) - Israel called on Tuesday for the immediate resumption of indirect talks with Gaza's Hamas rulers on the return of two Israeli civilians and the remains of two soldiers held for years in the Palestinian territory.

The appeal came in a statement from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office after Hamas said it might be willing to move forward on the issue.

Last week, Israel linked any future coronavirus-linked aid to neighbouring 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.

Yehya al-Sinwar, Hamas chief in Gaza, 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".

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 loathe 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)