Israel will no longer give up the bodies of Hamas terrorists killed during attacks, but instead bury them, the high-level security cabinet decided on Sunday, launching a renewed effort to pressure the Palestinian group into returning two Israeli civilians and the remains of two soldiers.
Gaza-based Hamas is currently holding the remains of IDF soldiers Staff Sgt. Oron Shaul and Lt. Hadar Goldin, who the army says were killed in the 2014 Gaza war, and is also believed to be detaining Avraham Mengistu and Juma Ibrahim Abu Anima, two Israeli men who crossed into Gaza on their own accord.
The decision by the security cabinet followed the release on Saturday by the Palestinian group of video footage showing a mock birthday party for Shaul, believed by the army to have been killed in the 2014 Gaza war.
“The political-security cabinet discussed standing policy on treatment of the bodies of Hamas terrorists killed during terror attacks and decided that they will not be returned, but will be buried,” a statement from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office read.
It did not elaborate on the burial plan, but said that the same meeting discussed ways of getting back the remains of soldiers killed in the 2014 Gaza war and obtaining the release of two Israeli civilians missing in Gaza and believed to be held by Hamas.
The statement said ministers adopted a “plan of action,” but gave no details.
Both votes were unanimous.
Following the decision, the parents of Goldin and Shaul expressed scant optimism and spoke by phone with Netanyahu’s military secretary Col. Eliezer Toledano and Israel’s chief hostage negotiator Lior Lotan.
“We won’t give a medal to those who decide to do too little too late. At face value, the action plan that the cabinet unanimously decided on deals with important matters that can lever pressure on Hamas. But the responsibility is on the prime minister to put the decision into action,” the Goldins said in a statement. “In addition, we expect that there will be a clear mechanism of stronger and more stringent steps against Hamas in all the actions which the government should now act on.”
Shaul’s family said in a statement that “we have already given up on the things the Israeli government says on the matter, and we are waiting for operative actions,” they said, according to Channel 10. “From our point of view, nothing has changed and we are waiting for the prime minister to take a leadership decision and bring home from war Oron Shaul.”
During the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas, dubbed IDF Operation Protective Edge, the bodies of soldiers Shaul and Goldin were seized by the terrorist group, which still holds them, by all accounts.
Though Israel has determined that there is no doubt that Shaul and Goldin died before their bodies were taken, Hamas has never admitted that the soldiers are dead.
Over the weekend, Hamas published two videos aimed at increasing Israeli public pressure on its leaders to return the soldiers and that mocked the government’s failure to secure their remains more than two years after the conflict ended.
In November, the Israeli army’s human resources chief said there were no breakthroughs on the horizon in the effort to return the bodies of the two soldiers.
A month earlier, a Hamas official denied rejecting an Israeli offer to free 18 Palestinians and hand over 19 bodies seized during the 2014 war in Gaza in exchange for the bodies of the two IDF soldiers who were killed in the 50-day conflict.
The terror group also poured cold water on a reported Israeli proposal to hand over Mengistu and Anima in exchange for dozens of Gazans, who have been arrested after crossing into Israel illegally.
In the more than two years that Shaul and Goldin have been held in the Gaza Strip, the effort to return the bodies has remained a hot-button issue in Israeli society, with the soldiers’ families making repeated calls for the government to take a harsher stance against the terrorist group in Gaza.
Israel has often gone to great lengths to retrieve bodies of soldiers with unknown burial places, setting up a designated unit within the Manpower Directorate to find them and, in some cases, embarking on regular search missions.
For live soldiers, like Gilad Shalit who was captured by Hamas in 2006, and also for bodies of deceased fighters, Israel has often agreed to wildly lopsided exchanges with terrorist groups.
To secure the release of Shalit, for instance, Israel set free 1,027 terrorists from its prisons.
That policy is heavily debated on the Israeli street and in the upper echelons of the country’s security services. One side stresses the need for Israel to do everything within its power to bring back any soldier who falls into enemy hands, while the other argues that such a sentimental approach to individuals, and especially bodies, is ultimately a weakness, which can be and has been exploited by Israel’s enemies.
The Hamas terror group has long demanded Israel first release hundreds of Palestinians who were rearrested after they were freed in the 2011 Shalit deal before they would even enter into negotiations with Israel over a prisoner exchange.
AFP contributed to this report