Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin on Thursday called for the return of the bodies of two IDF soldiers being held by the Hamas terror group, saying that Israel would keep striving to fulfill “this sacred mission.”
“Our commitment to return home Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul is still firm. We have not let up from this sacred mission, in particular in recent days. The same applies to Avraham Abera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, Israeli citizens who are held in the Gaza Strip by a brutal enemy,” Netanyahu said at a memorial event at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl military cemetery marking three years since the 2014 Gaza conflict.
Goldin and Shaul’s bodies have been held by Hamas since they were killed in the Gaza Strip during Operation Protective Edge, while Mengistu and al-Sayed are believed to also be held by the terror group after they entered the Gaza, as is a third man, Juma Ibrahim Abu Ghanima.
Rivlin also stressed would not cease working for the return of Shaul and Goldin’s bodies, saying it “is our moral and public obligation.”
“This year, Herzl Shaul, Oron’s father, passed away. Herzl asked me to promise, and I promised him, that we would continue to work for the return of Oron and Hadar. And here, in the Memorial Hall, we reiterate that promise, that the State of Israel will continue and fulfill its mission to bring Oron and Hadar home for burial in Israel,” the president said.
Since the capture of their son’s bodies, the Shaul and Goldin families have waged public campaigns for their return, with the Goldins recently releasing releasing a video urging the government to up its pressure on Hamas until the two soldiers’ bodies are returned.
The new video was released amid reports of progress in negotiations between Israel and Hamas via Egyptian mediators to reach a deal for a prisoner swap. Both sides have played down the extent of the progress.
In his speech, Netanyahu also said Israel was “continuing to boost its strength defensively and offensively,” and vowed that “quiet will be answered with quiet, but anyone who raises a hand against us will find a determined and powerful response. Our enemies know this. Our enemies in Gaza know this ten-fold.”
Israel’s 50-day campaign against Hamas in Gaza originally began as a predominantly aerial campaign in response to repeated rocket attacks from the Strip, similar to the 2012 Operation Pillar of Defense. But after Hamas made use of its tunnel network to carry out attacks inside Israel, the focus shifted to tackling the subterranean threat.
A total of 74 people — 68 soldiers, 11 of whom were killed in cross-border tunnel attacks; and 6 civilians — died on the Israeli side of the conflict. In Gaza, more than 2,000 people were killed, with Israel putting the percentage of civilians killed at approximately 50 percent. Additionally, Gaza itself was left badly damage by the fighting.
Referring to the destruction in Gaza as a result of the fighting, Rivlin said that while “the rehabilitation of Gaza is an Israeli interest,” the Strip would not be truly reconstructed until as long as it is under Hamas rule.
“The rehabilitation of Gaza is an Israeli interest, and I have no doubt that the public in Gaza yearns for it, but the rehabilitation of Gaza requires the return of our sons and the cessation of all hostilities against Israel,” he said. “Gaza will not be rehabilitated as long as it is run by Hamas; a terrorist organization that works to destroy Israel, which does not respect human life, does not respect human rights, a murderous and cruel organization.”
While seemingly acknowledging that mistakes were made during the war, Rivlin said that the military campaign succeeded in restoring security to Israel’s south.
“Protective Edge brought quiet to the area. The three years since have been the quietest three years on the southern front in the last decade. We do not forget the contribution of the IDF and the security forces, nor the contribution of the citizens who have shown great strength over the years, and have stood firm and determined on the home front.”
The president also said that while Israel would likely have to wage future wars, the IDF is “prepared and ready to respond to every scenario and every threat.”
“We are not complacent. We know that Operation Protective Edge will probably not be the last confrontation. We are fighting a terrorist organization, a brutal, extreme, and murderous terrorist organization, and we are prepared and ready to respond to every scenario and every threat,” he said.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.