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Yehiyeh Sinwar, right, the top Hamas leader in Gaza, hugs head of the Egyptian General Intelligence Abbas Kamel as they meet in Gaza on May 31, 2021.

MOHAMMED SALEM/The Associated Press

Hamas’s top leader in the Gaza Strip on Monday expressed optimism about reaching a prisoner exchange with Israel, while Egyptian mediators seek to hammer out a long-term ceasefire following an 11-day war in the Gaza Strip earlier this month.

Yehiyeh Sinwar spoke after meeting with Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel, who visited Gaza a day after talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on a trip aimed at shoring up an informal ceasefire brokered by Cairo.

Sinwar said “there is a real chance to make progress” in indirect negotiations that could involve the release of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, and the return of two Israeli citizens and the remains of two Israeli soldiers held by Hamas since the previous war in 2014.

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Egypt often serves as a mediator between Israel and Hamas and was a key player in negotiating the ceasefire that ended the fighting. Kamel, who has not given public statements, is the highest-ranking Arab official to visit Gaza since 2018.

The war, which was halted by a ceasefire on May 21, was triggered by weeks of protests and clashes in Jerusalem over Israel’s policing of a flashpoint holy site and efforts by settler groups to evict Palestinian families in the nearby Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood. The fighting erupted May 10 when Hamas launched a barrage of rockets at Jerusalem.

It fired over 4,000 rockets toward Israeli cities during the fighting, while Israeli warplanes struck some 1,000 targets in Gaza. More than 250 people were killed, the vast majority of them Palestinians living in Hamas-ruled Gaza, and parts of the territory suffered heavy damage.

“Today, by the grace of Allah, after this victory of May 2021, our Palestinian cause is making tangible and clear progress,” Sinwar said.

Speaking to foreign reporters on Monday, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz said that any reconstruction of Gaza would depend on progress in the issue of returning captive Israelis held by Hamas.

“We are willing to help with fixing the area, rebuilding it, construction, etc. But it’s conditioned with the return of our boys back home, the abducted soldiers,” he said.

Gantz also said the rules have changed in Israel’s dealings with Hamas and vowed a much harsher response to any violations of the new ceasefire.

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“We will brutally retaliate, but we will do it in our own time and will not accept the previous reality to show itself again,” he said.

Earlier on Monday, another senior Hamas official said Israel must halt its “aggression” in both Gaza and Jerusalem if it wants calm following this month’s fighting in the Gaza Strip.

“We discussed several files, most importantly the necessity to oblige the occupation to stop its aggression on Gaza, Jerusalem, Sheikh Jarrah and all over Palestine,” Khalil al-Haya told reporters. He said Israel must also fully lift the blockade it imposed on Gaza when Hamas seized power from rival Palestinian forces in 2007.

“If this happens, then calm and stability could return,” he said.

Al-Haya ruled out linking Gaza’s reconstruction to Hamas’ release of Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, the two Israeli civilians held captive and the remains of Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, two soldiers killed in the 2014 war. Instead, the militant group is likely to demand the release of a large number of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.

Sinwar intimated Monday that Hamas is demanding the release of over 1,100 prisoners held by Israel, more than the number freed in a 2011 exchange for captive Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit. Sinwar himself was freed from Israeli prison in that trade.

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The Egyptian-brokered truce has held but did not address any of the underlying issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel and Hamas have fought four wars since 2008.

On Sunday, Israeli troops shot a Palestinian man who sneaked into the country from the Gaza Strip with a knife. The military confirmed the incident on Monday but did not provide details on his condition.

The military said the suspect carried a knife and infiltrated the fenced border near Moshav Sde Avraham, a few kilometres (miles) from the coastal territory. A security guard told Israeli media on Monday that the suspect stabbed him.

The army said the suspect had been moved to a nearby hospital but his condition was not immediately known. Israeli authorities were trying to figure out how the suspect snuck across the fenced border.

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