The Hamas terror group held a major rally in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday as it celebrated the 35th anniversary since its establishment while warning that the window of opportunity for the return of the bodies of slain Israeli soldiers it holds could soon close.
At the rally, a masked speaker brandished an assault rife he said belonged to slain Israeli soldier Hadar Goldin. Goldin and fellow soldier Oron Shaul were killed in Gaza in August 2014 during that year’s war between Israel and Hamas in the territory, and their bodies were then taken by Hamas forces and have been held by the group ever since.
Hamas also posted closeup photos of the weapon and its serial number, apparently as proof of identification.
Despite ongoing efforts by the soldiers’ families and a succession of prime ministers and unconfirmed reports of repeated attempts at negotiations, the bodies have not been repatriated. The group is also believed to be holding two Israeli citizens, Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayyed, who entered the Strip of their own accord and who are both presumed to be alive.
Hamas is believed to be demanding the release of a large number of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for their return.
The leader of Hamas in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, confirmed at the rally that negotiations had taken place. He said that Israel had “limited time” to cut a deal or else negotiations would end and “Hamas would find another way to liberate our prisoners.”
Massive crowds take part in a rally in downtown Gaza commemorating the 35th anniversary of the foundation of the Palestinian resistance movement Hamas, today. pic.twitter.com/k8uPbREv82
— Quds News Network (@QudsNen) December 14, 2022
Hamas said in a statement on the gun pictures posted on Wednesday that “August 1, 2014 is a day that we remember well and that the leaders of the occupation and its soldiers remember well, even though they pretend to forget. That day they lost contact with the officer Hadar Goldin because he had been taken by triumphant heroes.”
The statement went on to say the gun “was one of the spoils taken by Hamas fighters on that awesome day, so that it may be a sign of their army’s failure and a tally to be put up on our scoreboard.”
Goldin was killed hours after the UN and the US brokered a 72-hour ceasefire between Israel and Hamas during the 49-day-long 2014 Gaza War.
One of Israel’s major war aims, largely achieved, was the neutralization of the sophisticated tunnel network in Gaza that included tunnels dug toward Israeli territory for infiltration attacks.
The fighting in the summer of 2014 claimed the lives of 67 Israeli soldiers and five Israeli civilians. On the other side, some 2,200 Palestinians died, of whom 65% were civilians according to the UN, 36% according to the Israeli army.
Wednesday’s events in Gaza marking the 35th anniversary of Hamas were also the occasion for high-ranking members of the terror group to lash out at Israel and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, which is run by the rival Fatah party.
Sinwar accused the PA of helping Israel arrest some 300 Hamas members in the West Bank in recent weeks.
An arrest operation against suspected terror group members in the West Bank city of Jenin on Sunday resulted in the IDF shooting dead a 16-year-old Palestinian girl, Jana Zakarna. The IDF has admitted that one of its soldiers likely fired the fatal bullet, and says the teen’s death was an accident.
Hamas’s Sinwar said, “The campaign of arrests in the West Bank indicates that the leadership of the security coordination is continuing down a dark tunnel.”
Hamas members almost universally call Israel “the occupation” and often refer to the Fatah-led PA as “the security coordination.”
Mutual interests in keeping a lid on unrest in the West Bank motivate Israel and the PA to maintain a coordination mechanism. A 2022 poll showed that 61% of Palestinians in the West Bank are in favor of ending coordination.
Sinwar went on to draw battle lines with Fatah over the groups’ differing attitudes toward armed struggle.
“Hamas never disagreed with Fatah in terms of strategy when Fatah used to raise the banner of armed struggle, we disagreed about exactly how much score-settling [with Israel] there needed to be,” Sinwar said.
In an interview last Wednesday, PA President Mahmoud Abbas affirmed his opposition to armed resistance — toeing what has been the party line since the late 1980s — but said he could change his mind in the future.
Another prominent Hamas leader, the military commander Muhammed Deif, issued a rare public statement in which he called on Palestinian factions to “unite” for the “liberation of Palestine.”
He also issued a warning to Israelis: “You are too impotent and cowardly to succeed where your forefathers failed. Your fate is to have your entity [the State of Israel] and your synagogues wiped off the face of our land.”
Deif has been on Israel’s most-wanted list for over 25 years for his involvement in the planning and execution of a large number of terror attacks, including many bus bombings in years past. He has survived multiple assassination attempts by Israeli security forces over the years.
Times of Israel Staff contributed to this report