The families of four Israelis missing in Gaza since 2014 and 2015 came together in Geneva on Wednesday to seek the Red Cross and the UN’s help in advancing their cases.
Soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin were killed during Israel’s 2014 invasion of the Gaza Strip, and their remains are in the hands of Gaza’s Islamist Hamas rulers — although the terror group has never confirmed their deaths.
Hamas is also thought to be holding two Israeli civilians who entered the coastal enclave of their own accord in 2014 and 2015, respectively — Avera Mengistu, a Jew of Ethiopian origin, and Hisham Al-Sayed, a Bedouin Muslim.
Israeli authorities say they are both mentally unstable, and both are presumed alive.
Their relatives traveled to Geneva to seek help from the international community in getting progress on their cases.
On Wednesday they met the UN human rights chief Volker Turk, and Gilles Carbonnier, vice-president of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
“Information about my son held in Gaza for the last nine years? Zero,” Leah Goldin told AFP. “I’m coming as a mother of a son… and I’m fighting to have to give my son a proper burial.
“I’m coming here to Geneva, where all the human rights issues are discussed… it is time for action.”
The fate of missing soldiers is a particularly sensitive subject in Israel, a country where the vast majority of young Jews are subject to compulsory military service.
Various attempts to release them in exchange for Palestinian prisoners have failed in recent years.
But for Ofek Shaul, only one thing matters after all these years of waiting: “I want my brother. I don’t care how. I just want him, I just want him with me,” he told AFP.
Lieutenant Goldin was killed on August 1, 2014, just hours after a truce came into effect.
His mother said the international community needs to “flip the equation” and suggested that humanitarian aid should be sent to Gaza on condition of the return of her son’s remains, as “a confidence-building measure.”
‘Pain grows sharper’
Asked about the meeting, the ICRC said discussions about specific missing persons were confidential.
However, the families of people unaccounted for, whether Israeli or Palestinian, “have the right to know the fate of their relatives,” and “their pain grows sharper as years go by.”
“The ICRC works to clarify the fate of those missing on all sides of the conflict.”
“The remains of those killed during the conflict must be identified, handled with dignity, and returned to their families.”
The family of Mengistu, who disappeared on September 7, 2014, feels distraught. In January this year, Hamas released an undated video but his mother, Agarnesh Mengistu, told AFP she was not sure if it was him.
“The most difficult for me is to understand why Hamas doesn’t show any mercy for my son,” she said, via a translator.
Although it was her third trip to Geneva, she remained hopeful.
For Hisham Al-Sayed’s parents, it was their first visit to the Swiss city to ask for help from the international community, after having tried to arrange negotiations via the Bedouin communities, which have proved fruitless.
“We came here as a last resort with the hope that the UN bodies here in Geneva will help us to bring him at home after eight years,” father Shaaban Al-Sayed told AFP.
In December, Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas leader in Gaza, said the group would end talks on securing a prisoner exchange with Israel unless there was progress soon.
“Otherwise, we will close the case of the four enemy prisoners from the side of the resistance forever,” he said.
Israel and Hamas have held indirect talks in an attempt to reach a prisoner exchange deal. A similar deal to release Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit from Hamas’s clutches saw 1,027 Palestinian security prisoners released, many of them convicted terrorists. Egyptian intelligence, which maintains close ties to both Israel and Hamas, often serves as the key intermediary.
The 2011 exchange to secure the release of Shalit was deeply controversial, with many in Israel’s security establishment at the time claiming it was lopsided in Hamas’s favor. Many of the prisoners released later returned to terror — such as Sinwar.