Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Sunday said Israel would not release Palestinian security prisoners in exchange for Israeli citizens and the bodies of IDF soldiers being held by the Hamas terror group, vowing to not repeat the “mistake” of an earlier prisoner swap.
Addressing the resignation last week of Lior Lotan, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s representative overseeing efforts to retrieve the remains of two IDF soldiers and three living Israelis from the Gaza Strip, Liberman said their return continues to be a top priority.
“I consider this to be of the utmost moral and ethical import, first and foremost to the families and to the IDF and the State of Israel,” he said in a statement.
Lotan, who was appointed in 2014, replaced David Meidan, who held the coordinator position for three years. Meidan had played a key role in drawing up the Shalit prisoner exchange deal which ultimately led to the release of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit from Hamas captivity in 2011 in exchange for some 1,000 Palestinian security prisoners.
Liberman said that while Israel will continue to work toward the return of the Israelis and the bodies of the IDF soldiers, it will not go down the same path again.
“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.
“Two hundred and two of those released in the Shalit deal have since been arrested by the defense establishment for their involvement in terror, of whom 111 are still in Israeli prisons,” he said. “Seven Israelis were murdered by the direct or indirect involvement of those who were released.”
The defense minister said that in light of the Shalit deal, “clear boundaries” must be drawn up 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.”
The bodies of IDF soldiers Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul have been held by Hamas since they 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.
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.
President Reuven Rivlin also stressed at the event at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl military cemetery that Israel would not cease working for the return of Shaul and Goldin’s bodies, saying it “is our moral and public obligation.”
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.