Sources in the Palestinian terrorist organization Hamas told The Times of Israel on Sunday evening that it is willing to reveal information about two IDF soldiers, whose bodies it is believed to be holding, if Israel releases some of its operatives currently being held in prison.
Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul fell during last summer’s 50-day military campaign, Operation Protective Edge, against Hamas in Gaza. Neither body was recovered and Israel has classed both soldiers as “killed in action.”
In response to a chilling letter claimed by Hamas to have been penned by Shaul and released by Hamas on Sunday morning, his mother, Zehava, demanded physical evidence that her son was still alive, promising the family would “turn the country upside down” in order to bring him home.
The letter was a purported emotional appeal by Shaul to his bereaved parents begging for his release, in an apparent attempt by Hamas to leverage the family’s hope that he is still alive into negotiating a prisoner exchange.
Shaul and six other soldiers were killed on July 20, 2014, when their armored personnel carrier was struck by an anti-tank missile in Gaza City. Shaul had been driving the APC at the time. The army was able to recover the remains of only six soldiers. But based on forensic evidence, the IDF concluded that Shaul had also been killed.
Zehava Shaul demanded Sunday that Hamas provide proof of life before the family would begin to act. “Ismail Haniyeh, I turn to you again. I want to believe you,” she said in remarks addressed to the Hamas former Gaza prime minister. “Give us concrete evidence on Oron’s actual condition. The moment we have proof, I promise you that we will turn the country — and the world — upside down to make sure the deal actually happens,” she said during a press conference at the family home in the northern town of Poriya.
In its response to the letter, the Goldin family called on Israel to take tough measures against Hamas over the capture of the soldiers’ bodies.
“The Shaul family and us, the family of Hadar Goldin, have been waiting for a year and a half for our sons to be returned home, and Hamas is now psychologically manipulating us in order to break our spirit. The time has come for the country to not give in to the patterns of the past, to present an attack position to Hamas and set the price that Hamas will have to pay for kidnapping our soldiers,” the Goldin family said.
“The State of Israel cannot give any gesture — humanitarian or otherwise — to the people of Gaza until Hadar and Oron are returned,” they said in a statement.
Hamas, in its message, would neither confirm nor deny that Shaul and Goldin were still alive, but said it would provide information about Shaul and Goldin’s fate in exchange for the release of its operatives. The group also announced on social media Sunday that it would hold a press conference the next day.
“Hamas will hold a negotiation and transfer information on the destinies of the Israelis only after Israel releases prisoners from the Shalit deal who were re-arrested after the kidnapping of the teenagers,” the organization said, referring to the more than 1,000 terrorists who were released from Israeli prisons in order to secure the 2011 release of Gilad Shalit, who was kidnapped in 2006. In the years following, many of those terrorists were arrested again for violating the terms of their release.
It is not clear if Hamas was genuinely trying to have Shaul’s family believe he was still alive, or if the letter was simply a sadistic ploy; in either case, it is likely that it was meant to spur greater willingness on Israel’s part to negotiate.
In the press conference, Zehava Shaul also called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to do more to retrieve her son and Goldin.
“Now I demand of my country: Bring back my son. Bring Oron back home, together with Hadar Goldin, as quickly as possible,” she said.
“Despite all the efforts that were made and weren’t made, we have not yet seen any results and our son has not returned home. We don’t leave wounded soldiers behind, and also not the deceased. The responsibility is on you — the government and the army — to return our sons home. We demand action.”
Although both Shaul and Goldin were pronounced dead by the IDF — based on forensic evidence — Hamas penned the letter to Shaul’s parents as if he were still alive, begging them to work for his release.
“My dearest mother, I hear it raining all around me but I cannot see or hear it. I keep waiting for happy news that will bring me back to you,” the letter to Zehava and Simha Shaul began.
“I want to be freed from captivity, and though I don’t deny I have been treated gently, I fear you have forgotten me, which fills my heart with much sadness and despair.”
Calling the Shaul family pawns in a “political gambit” by the Israeli government, the letter emphasized the slow progress of efforts to return him.
“The army promised us that we would return to our homes and families safely, but they left me here and have not done anything to bring me home,” it said.
“Mom, Dad, I beg you to please take action on my behalf,” the letter concluded.
Last month, Hamas political leader Khaled Mashaal reportedly demanded the release of dozens of Palestinian prisoners — including Marwan Barghouti and Ahmad Saadat — in exchange for the bodies of Goldin and Shaul.
Barghouti, accused of being a major mastermind of the Second Intifada, is serving five life sentences after an Israeli court found him guilty in 2004 on multiple murder counts for his involvement in multiple lethal terror attacks. Saadat was arrested and imprisoned for his involvement in the 2001 assassination of Israeli minister Rehavam Ze’evi.
Israel has, on several occasions, freed live prisoners in exchange for the remains of its servicemen. However, Jerusalem has never negotiated directly with Hamas.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.