JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel on Wednesday linked any assistance it might offer for the Gaza Strip’s efforts against coronavirus to progress in its attempt to recover two Israeli soldiers lost during the 2014 war in the Palestinian enclave.
Blockaded and impoverished, Islamist Hamas-ruled Gaza has reported 12 coronavirus cases and authorities worry that local health facilities - with just 96 ventilators for a population of 2 million - are insufficient to contain a contagion.
Both Israel and Hamas have closed the Gaza border to non-essential traffic as a precaution against the spread of the infection. But with Gaza authorities appealing for foreign humanitarian assistance, Israel has been weighing its role.
“The moment there is talk of the humanitarian world in Gaza - Israel also has humanitarian needs, which are mainly the recovery of the fallen,” Defence Minister Naftali Bennett told reporters, referring to an infantry officer and conscript who were killed in the 2014 war and their remains kept by Hamas.
“And 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 ... and certainly, our hearts would be open to many things.”
It was not immediately clear if Bennett was speaking of a possible condition on Israel providing direct aid, or also on it enabling the transfer of other aid over its border with Gaza.
Palestinian officials on Wednesday said 1,500 coronavirus testing kits would be brought into Gaza, with the help of the World Health Organisation, after they were donated by the Palestinian administration in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Hamas has never stated whether the two Israeli troopers are dead or alive, but neither has it provided a sign of life, something it did in a previous similar case.
Hamas said returning the two soldiers - as well as two Israeli civilians who crossed into the territory - would require negotiating a prisoner swap and would not be done in exchange for humanitarian aid.
“Israel bears responsibility for any consequences should the disease spread in Gaza because it has been blockading it for 13 years,” said Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum.
“A prisoner swap deal is a separate track,” he said.
Israel in the past has freed hundreds of jailed Palestinians, including many militants, in exchange for the single-figure recovery of slain or captive Israelis.
Bennett has made clear he would not agree to any further releases of Palestinian militants in the future.
Reporting by Dan Williams and Nidal al-Mughrabi; Writing by Dan Williams, Editing by William Maclean
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