A former official appointed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to oversee efforts to retrieve the bodies of two IDF soldiers and a number of Israeli citizens held in Gaza by the Hamas terror group said Israel must adopt a policy of kidnapping enemy combatants to use as bargaining chips in future prisoner swaps.
In recordings published Monday by Army Radio, Lior Lotan, who resigned from his position last week, says Israel must capture 200 enemy fighters for every Israel Defense Forces soldier taken by enemy forces.
“I don’t think that a war needs to end with [a ratio of] 2 to 0 captured [soldiers] for the enemy,” Lotan says in the audio clip, which Army Radio said was recorded a number of months ago prior to Lotan’s resignation.
It is not clear if Lotan knew he was being recorded.
“If we have one captured [soldier], [the war] needs to end with 200 to 1. If it’s two [captured soldiers] then 400 to 2, if three then 600,” he says. “This does not mean problems will then be solved, but the equation will be different.”
“I want [to play with] a full hand on the issue of prisoners,” he added.
Lotan also says in the recording that while the army needs to improve its handling of the issue of captured soldiers, “this chief of staff [Gadi Eisenkot] is very committed and thinks this is an issue the army needs to deal with.”
Since Lotan’s resignation last week, the issue of Israel’s policy on captured IDF soldiers has again become an issue of national debate, with Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman saying Sunday that Israel must draw up “clear boundaries” for prisoner swap negotiations before a replacement for Lotan is appointed, in order to “make clear to [Israel’s enemies] that we have no intention of compromising on the security of the people of Israel.”
Liberman also said Israel must not repeat the “mistake” of the 2011 Shalit prisoner exchange deal, which saw the release of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit after five years in Hamas captivity in exchange for over 1,000 Palestinian security prisoners.
“We must not repeat the mistake of the Shalit deal. In the deal, 1,027 terrorists were released, among them murderers and their agents,” he said, singling out the releases of Mahmoud Kawasme and Yahya Sinwar.
Kawasme helped fund the June 2014 kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers who were killed shortly after they were abducted. Sinwar, considered to be one of Hamas’s most ruthless leaders, was elected as the terror group’s leader in the Gaza Strip earlier this year.
Liberman also pointed to the high recidivism rate among terrorists released in the Shalit deal as grounds for opposing a future prisoner swap.
Housing Minister Yoav Galant (Kulanu), a former IDF general, harshly criticized Liberman’s call for Israel to adopt the findings of the Shamgar Commission, a report finished in 2012 recommending against mass prisoner exchanges such as the Shalit deal.
“The adoption of the Shamgar report would sentence a captured soldier to death,” Galant told Israel Radio on Monday.
The father of fallen IDF soldier Hadar Goldin, whose body is being held by Hamas, also strongly condemned Liberman’s comments, calling the defense minister “weak” and “cowardly.”
“Liberman violated his commitment to the IDF’s code of ethics” by failing to bring back Hadar’s remains, Simha Goldin, Hadar’s father, charged in a press conference Sunday. “We are asking that the cabinet accept our proposal — not to return prisoners, [but rather] to stop family visits for Hamas prisoners and put an end to this summer camp,” he said, referring to what he said were overly generous prison conditions for Hamas prisoners, including regular family visits and access to higher education.
“And, of course, stop humanitarian gestures by Israel and the international community toward Gaza,” he added.
In addition to Goldin, Hamas is also holding the body of Oron Shaul since the two were killed in the Gaza Strip during 2014’s Operation Protective Edge. The terror group is also believed to be holding three Israeli citizens — Avraham Abera Mengistu, Hisham al-Sayed and Juma Ibrahim Abu Ghanima — who are all said to have entered the Gaza Strip of their own accord.
Mengistu’s brother Ilan told Israel Radio on Monday that “the efforts to return the soldiers [also] need to bring my brother back home.”
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres is set to meet with the Goldin, Shaul and Mengistu families on Wednesday as part of a three-day trip to the region.
At a Monday meeting between Guterres and President Reuven Rivlin, Israel’s president told the UN chief, “Hamas in Gaza must not be allowed to rebuild their weapons, and the world must call on Hamas to return our sons. Return them home. To their families. I urge you to take this mission and to help us bring back our sons.”
As part of the efforts to return the bodies of Shaul and Goldin, Israel has reportedly been holding indirect talks with Hamas about a possible prisoner deal.
While Israel has played down reports of progress in Egyptian-mediated negotiations for a prisoner swap, an unnamed Palestinian source told the London-based Arabic-language Al-Hiyat newspaper in July that negotiations have “come a long way.”
At a memorial in July marking three years since the 2014 Gaza conflict, Netanyahu hinted at recently increased Israeli efforts to return the Israeli citizens and the bodies of IDF soldiers being held by Hamas.
“Our commitment to return home Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul is still firm. We have not let up from this sacred mission, in particular in recent days. The same applies to Avraham Abera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, Israeli citizens who are held in the Gaza Strip by a brutal enemy,” he said, failing to mention Abu Ghanima, the third Israeli civilian held by Hamas.
Since the capture of their sons’ bodies, the Shaul and Goldin families have waged public campaigns for their return, with the Goldins recently releasing a video urging the government to up its pressure on Hamas until the two soldiers’ bodies are returned.
Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.