Father of fallen soldier dies with son’s body still held by Hamas

Herzl Shaul, who fought for 2 years for the return of his son Oron’s remains from Gaza, succumbs to cancer

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Herzl Shaul, father of late Israeli soldier Oron Shaul, stands at the protest tent outside the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem on June 26, 2016 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Herzl Shaul, father of late Israeli soldier Oron Shaul, stands at the protest tent outside the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem on June 26, 2016 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The father of an IDF soldier whose body has been held by Hamas since he fell in Gaza in 2014 died Friday after a battle with cancer.

Herzl Shaul discovered 10 months ago that he was suffering from the disease, and never realized his wish to see the return of his son’s remains.

Oron Shaul’s armored personnel carrier was attacked on July 20, 2014. He was initially declared missing, but after an investigation the IDF declared that the 20-year-old staff sergeant was killed in action.

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot paid tribute to Shaul on Friday, saying he had pledged to him that he would keep fighting to bring his son’s body home for burial, along with the body of 23-year-old Lt. Hadar Goldin, who also perished in the fighting.

IDF soldiers Oron Shaul (left) and Hadar Goldin (right) (Flash90)
IDF soldiers Oron Shaul (left) and Hadar Goldin (right) (Flash90)

“Herzl was the head of an exemplary family,” Eisenkot said in a statement. “I send a strong embrace to [his wife] Zahava and the family at this difficult time. I met Herzl for the last time a week ago, and I promised him that we will continue to do everything we can to bring Oron and Hadar home, to be laid to rest in Israel.”

The Shaul family has for months held a daily vigil outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office in Jerusalem, calling for the government to bring Oron’s body home.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman also paid tribute to Herzl Shaul on Friday, and vowed to realize his wish to see Oron buried in Israel.

“The Defense Ministry and the people of Israel bow their heads in sorrow at the death of Herzl, of blessed memory,” Liberman said.

“I met with Herzl about a month ago. [He] did everything in his power to return his late son Oron, and I am saddened he did not achieve this before he died. The Israeli government is committed to returning the bodies of Staff Sergeant Oron Shaul and Lieutenant Hadar Goldin of blessed memory and bringing them to Israel for burial.”

Liberman’s office told The Times of Israel this week that he is opposed to negotiations with Hamas for the return of Goldin and Shaul’s bodies.

The office denied, however, that the minister said the remains of the two soldiers would remain in the Gaza Strip, as he opposed negotiations with the terrorist group.

“In my assessment, the soldiers’ bodies will not be returned to Israel, I don’t see that happening,” Channel 10 quoted Liberman as saying Monday in a closed-door meeting during a visit to southern Israel.

Brother of late Israeli soldier Oron Shaul seen at a protest tent outside the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's residence in Jerusalem on June 30, 2016. The sign reads 'Returning Oron.' (Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Brother of late Israeli soldier Oron Shaul seen at a protest tent outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem on June 30, 2016. The sign reads ‘Returning Oron.’ (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

But said his office: “Despite the report in Channel 10, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman did not discuss the topic of returning the bodies of soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin today or in recent days.”

However, it added, “Minister Liberman has always been opposed to prisoner deals of the sort done until today. As a reminder, Minister Liberman voted against the Shalit deal.” IDF soldier Gilad Shalit was returned to Israel in 2011, ending his five-year captivity in Gaza, in exchange for the release of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly promised to return the remains of Goldin and Shaul, asking representatives from the United Nations and other countries for help.

Reports that Hamas was interested in negotiating the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners held in Israel in exchange for the remains, along with two Israeli citizens believed held in the Strip, came to light in early July.

“Hamas wants a Shalit 2 deal, with the release of hundreds of prisoners,” the Hebrew daily Yedioth Ahronoth quoted an unnamed senior Israeli official as saying.

Senior Hamas official Salah Bardawil flatly denied the report and claimed there was no contact of any sort between the two sides regarding prisoners, Yedioth’s sister website Ynet reported.

Israel and Hamas do not officially maintain direct contact, and any deal would have to be mediated by international parties, as in previous negotiations with the terror group and with the Lebanon-based Hezbollah.

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