Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Monday cautioned that there was no easy way for Israel to secure the return of fallen soldiers or Israelis held by Hamas, short of capitulation to the terror group’s demands or reoccupying the Gaza Strip.
Any other solution, Liberman told The Times of Israel, will require patience.
Liberman was responding to the media storm that followed comments he made Sunday, in which he said that Israel must not repeat the “mistake” of releasing Palestinian prisoners in exchange for captives held by Hamas.
The defense minister stressed that public and media pressure only weakens Israel’s position. He said that Israel needs to change tack and stop releasing Palestinian security prisoners in exchange for captive Israelis.
“The time has come to flip the script that began with the Jibril deal that saw those released initiate and carry out the First Intifada, and through the Shalit deal, whose freed [prisoners] set the tone for Hamas in Gaza, including the organization’s leader Yahya Sinwar. Those released in the Shalit deal are responsible for the murder of Israelis,” Liberman said.
Liberman also spoke to United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres, in the country for a three day visit with Israeli and Palestinian officials, asking him to apply pressure to the terror organization to return the captives it holds.
“Hamas holds two IDF soldiers, Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, and makes unreasonable demands on the State of Israel,” the defense minister told Guterres.
“The group also holds, in defiance of international law, Israeli civilians who crossed the border into Gaza, and refuses to give any details about their condition, or allowing the Red Cross to visit them,” he said. “This is cruelty towards the families of soldiers and civilians, and I expect the international community and the United Nations to express this loudly and to apply pressure to Hamas.”
Hamas has been holding the bodies of Goldin and 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.
Hamas said there could be no deal without Israel giving up prisoners. “We are ready to conduct immediate negotiations through an intermediary in order to discuss a prisoner exchange if Israel releases prisoners it re-arrested from the” Gilad Shalit deal, said Sinwar in a press release on Monday.
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.
Sinwar stressed that Hamas has “bargaining chips regarding the [prisoners exchange] that lets us stand on firm ground in order to fulfill our commitment and our promise to all prisoners that we will release them in honorable deals.”
“Netanyahu is deluding the families of Israeli soldiers in our hands,” he said..
The statement by Sinwar is in line with Hamas’s long-held public stance on the issue of negotiating over the current Israeli hostages.
Liberman’s comments have drawn the ire of the families of those held, who accuse him of not doing enough.
“Since the morning, the defense minister has been busy giving briefings against the Goldin and Shaul families,” Hadar Goldin’s brother Tzur Goldin tweeted. “As a fighter in the IDF I was taught that our mission was to defeat Hamas, not the families of the fallen.”
Mengistu’s brother Ilan told Israel Radio on Monday that “the efforts to return the soldiers [also] need to bring my brother back home.”
Guterres is set to meet with the Goldin, Shaul and Mengistu families on Wednesday as part of a three-day trip to the region.
Goldin’s father on Sunday had strongly condemned Liberman, 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 charged in a press conference.
“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.