Israel denies request to recover Hamas terrorists’ bodies from tunnel
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Israel denies request to recover Hamas terrorists’ bodies from tunnel

Defense Ministry demands progress on Israelis held in Gaza before five bodies believed to be under rubble can be extracted

Dov Lieber is The Times of Israel's Arab affairs correspondent.

Members of the Hamas terror group's military wing carry the body of 30-year-old Maslih Shabir in Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip, on October 31, 2017. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Members of the Hamas terror group's military wing carry the body of 30-year-old Maslih Shabir in Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip, on October 31, 2017. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Israel on Thursday said that until there is progress toward releasing Israeli citizens and remains of IDF soldiers held in Gaza by Hamas, it will not allow the terror group to retrieve the bodies of terrorists thought to have been buried under rubble when the military destroyed a cross-border attack tunnel on Monday.

Hamas said it believes five bodies are still inside the tunnel near the Israeli border, which was being built by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group extending from the Gazan city of Khan Younis into Israeli territory, near Kibbutz Kissufim. The IDF blew up the tunnel in Israeli territory.

Hamas 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 within the tunnel.

Major General Yoav Mordechai, head of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, the Israeli Defense Ministry branch that liaises with the Palestinians on civil and security affairs, said that he refused a request by the ICRC to search for the missing bodies in the tunnel.

According to a statement by COGAT, 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.”

US President Donald Trump's peace envoy Jason Greenblatt (L) tours a Hamas terror tunnel near the Gaza Strip with Coordinator for Government Activities in the Territories Yoav 'Poly' Mordechai on August 30, 2017. (COGAT Spokesperson's Office)
US President Donald Trump’s peace envoy Jason Greenblatt (L) tours a Hamas terror tunnel near the Gaza Strip with Coordinator for Government Activities in the Territories Yoav ‘Poly’ Mordechai on August 30, 2017. (COGAT Spokesperson’s Office)

Hamas still holds bodies of 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.

The families of the soldiers, along with several Israeli politicians, said that Israel should not accede to Hamas’s request without a reciprocal deal to return their loved ones’ bodies.

“We hope that the Israeli government will not dare to comply with Hamas’s request as long as they do not return Oron,” said the family of soldier Shaul Oron. “Oron was kidnapped through a tunnel that Hamas dug, and for more than three years has been held by them in Gaza, and yet they do not allow the Red Cross to check on his condition.”

The family of soldier Hadar Goldin said it would be immoral of the government to allow the terror group to retrieve the bodies of its dead while it continues to hold the remains of Israeli soldiers.

“Any Israeli humanitarian gesture toward Hamas must be contingent on bringing our boys home. If Israel responds [positively] to Hamas, it would be a moral injustice and a sign of political weakness,” the family said.

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

MKs Amir Peretz (Zionist Union) and Shuli Muallem-Refaeli (Jewish Home), who head a Knesset caucus on returning the soldiers’ remains, said in a statement that humanitarian gestures must be balanced on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides.

“The humanitarian balance must be clear to Hamas,” they said. “We have been waiting more than three years for them to return our missing [citizens].

“If Hamas wants the bodies of the terrorists buried under the rubble of the tunnel, it must also return our missing soldiers. The humanitarian balance applies to both sides. We call on the prime minister to take every opportunity to return the Israeli citizens held by Hamas and the bodies of Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin. This is an opportune moment which must not be wasted.”

Seven Palestinian terrorists — including two senior Palestinian Islamic Jihad commanders and two members of Hamas’s elite naval unit — were killed as 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 is 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.

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