In Hamas talks, Red Cross chief asks to visit missing Israelis

Peter Maurer meets with terror group chief Yahya Sinwar in Gaza Strip, laments situation of civilian population

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

The president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Peter Maurer left, shakes hands with Hamas chief in Gaza Yahya Sinwar following a meeting in Gaza City, September 5, 2017. (AFP/MOHAMMED ABED)
The president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Peter Maurer left, shakes hands with Hamas chief in Gaza Yahya Sinwar following a meeting in Gaza City, September 5, 2017. (AFP/MOHAMMED ABED)

Visiting the Gaza Strip, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross on Tuesday asked senior Hamas officials to let him meet with Israeli civilians believed to be held by the Palestinian terror group.

Peter Maurer made the request as he met with Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas political leader in the coastal enclave, the Ma’an news agency reported, citing Palestinian sources. The two men talked for an hour together with senior Hamas official Ghazi Hamad.

Hamas is thought to be detaining three Israelis — Avraham Abera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, as well as Juma Ibrahim Abu Ghanima, all of whom entered the enclave of their own accord over the past several years — as well as the bodies of two IDF soldiers — Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin — who were killed during the 2014 summer war between Israel and the terror group.

Mengistu and Sayed are both said to suffer from mental illness.

Sinwar told Maurer that “all institutions will be open before the Red Cross to ensure the standards of international humanitarian law are being applied,” according to a Hamas statement.

It was not immediately clear whether the Red Cross director was seeking to be presented with evidence on the soldiers’ bodies, the living captives, or both.

Maurer also met with families of Palestinians who are held on security offenses in Israeli prisons.

In a brief statement Maurer commented on the civilian situation in Gaza, which he described as very tragic, Ma’an reported.

Before the ICRC chief crossed into the Hamas-controlled territory, Palestinian sources told Arab media that he intended to raise the subject of the missing Israelis with Sinwar.

In 2011, kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was released in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian detainees. Israel rearrested around 50 of those who were released in the deal in the summer of 2014 during a search for three Israeli teenagers who were kidnapped and, it later emerged, killed by a Hamas cell. Hamas wants those several dozen prisoners set free before it will begin to negotiate the further release of several thousand more Palestinians in Israeli prisons in return for the Israelis it holds.

Oron Shaul, Hadar Goldin and Avraham Mengistu. (Flash90/The Times of Israel)

After his trip to Gaza, Maurer will also meet with Israeli officials in Jerusalem and Palestinian Authority officials in Ramallah. He last visited the region in 2014 and met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the time.

Last month, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, who has in the past criticized the Red Cross for not helping with the missing Israelis, caused a media storm by saying that Israel must not repeat the “mistake” of releasing Palestinian prisoners in exchange for captives held by Hamas.

Sinwar responded by declaring in a press release there could be no deal without Israel releasing Palestinian prisoners.

Liberman’s comments drew the ire of the families of those held, who accuse him of not doing enough.

The defense minister spoke with United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres when he was in the region for a three-day visit with Israeli and Palestinian officials late last month, asking him to apply pressure on the terror organization to return the captives.

In June, Liberman slammed international human rights groups, saying they have not even attempted to contact the Hamas-held captives. He said there would be no humanitarian improvements for Gaza until “the Red Cross at least visits them,” referring to both the living Israelis and the remains of the soldiers.

The Palestinian Authority ruled Gaza until 2007, when Hamas took over the Strip from PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction. Since then, Israel has fought three wars against Hamas in response to its firing of thousands of rockets at Israeli population centers.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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