Hamas on Friday rejected conditions set by Israel that would allow the Gaza-based terrorist organization to retrieve the bodies of terrorists they believe are buried under the rubble of a cross-border tunnel destroyed by the IDF earlier this week.
On Thursday, the IDF said it would not allow the five bodies to be retrieved unless progress is made towards releasing the bodies of two slain IDF soldiers being held by Hamas since 2014.
Top Hamas official Mahmoud al-Zahar said the group “will not provide any information in exchange for locating those missing,” according to reports in Hebrew-language media. “As far as we are concerned, they are buried in their own country.”
The Justice Ministry on Friday backed the IDF’s position, saying in a legal brief that it wasn’t the “duty of the government to allow the terrorist organizations operating in Gaza to collect the bodies of its terrorists.”
Hamas says five bodies are still inside the tunnel that was under construction by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group under the Israeli border. The tunnel, which extended from the Gazan city of Khan Younis to the Israeli Kibbutz Kissufim, was blown up on the Israeli side of the border on Monday.
Hamas had reportedly asked the International Committee of the Red Cross to coordinate with Israel to allow its men to enter the Gaza-Israel buffer security zone and search for the missing bodies inside the tunnel.
But Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, head of the Defense Ministry’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories agency, refused the ICRC request.
According to a COGAT statement, Mordechai told the head of the ICRC delegation in Gaza, Jacques de Maio, that “Israel will not allow search operations in the area of the security barrier in the Gaza Strip without progress on the issue of Israelis kidnapped and MIAs.”
Hamas still holds the bodies of two Israeli soldiers killed during the 2014 war in the Strip, and has refused requests from Israel and the ICRC to return them to their families. It is also believed to be imprisoning three mentally unstable Israeli citizens — Avraham Mengistu, Hisham al-Sayed and Juma Abu Anima — all of whom are believed to have entered the Strip of their own volition.
Politicians and the families of the captured IDF soldiers Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul called on Israel to refuse the Hamas request unless a reciprocal deal was made.
Seven Palestinian terrorists — including two senior Palestinian Islamic Jihad commanders and two members of Hamas’s elite naval unit — were killed as a result of the tunnel’s explosion on Monday, and 12 others were injured, Gaza’s Health Ministry said.
The IDF suspects the missing diggers were working in the stretch of the tunnel that was inside Israeli territory.
According to Israeli and Palestinian assessments, most of the Palestinians who died in the attack tunnel were not killed from the initial blast, but died in its aftermath, from smoke inhalation, secondary explosions and collapses.
Dov Lieber contributed to this report.