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Liberman said to rule out deal with Hamas for soldiers’ bodies

Family of one of the missing soldiers says defense minister has no ‘moral authority’ to retain his cabinet position

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman tours Bedouin villages in the Negev, southern Israel, on August 29, 2016 (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman tours Bedouin villages in the Negev, southern Israel, on August 29, 2016 (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman’s on Monday reportedly said the bodies of two Israeli soldiers being held by Hamas would remain in the Gaza Strip, as he opposed negotiations with the terrorist group. His office later denied that he had made the comments.

According to Channel 10 news, in a closed-doors meeting during a visit to southern Israel, Liberman told those present that Staff Sgt. Oron Shaul and Lt. Hadar Goldin, whose bodies have been held since the 2014 Gaza war, will not be returned to Israel due to his opposition to a parley with Hamas.

“In my assessment, the soldiers’ bodies will not be returned to Israel, I don’t see that happening,” Liberman reportedly said.

“I was against the [Gilad] Shalit deal and I don’t plan to make a deal in the future with Hamas,” the defense minister was quoted as saying. In 2011, IDF soldier Shalit was returned to Israel after being held captive in Gaza for some five years, in exchange for the release of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners.

Liberman’s office denied to The Times of Israel that he had made those remarks on Monday, but did confirm that the defense minister is against negotiations with Hamas.

“Despite the report in Channel 10, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman did not discuss the topic of returning the bodies of soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin today or in recent days,” his office said.

However, it added, “Minister Liberman has always been opposed to prisoner deals of the sort done until today. As a reminder, Minister Liberman vote against the Shalit deal.”

Released Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit (second right), walks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (second left), then-defense minister Ehud Barak (left), and ex-chief of staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz (right), at the Tel Nof air base in southern Israel, October 18, 2011. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry/Flash90)
Released Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit (second right), walks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (second left), then-defense minister Ehud Barak (left), and ex-chief of staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz (right), at the Tel Nof air base in southern Israel, October 18, 2011. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

In response to the reports, the family of Hadar Goldin released a statement saying: “A defense minister who decides to give up on returning soldiers from the field of battle has no moral authority to be defense minister of Israel.”

On August 1, Hamas gunmen emerged from a tunnel in the Gaza city of Rafah and opened fire on Goldin’s unit, killing two soldiers immediately and taking Goldin with them into the tunnel. Though other Israeli soldiers gave chase, they were unable to retrieve the 23-year-old lieutenant.

Shaul’s armored personnel carrier was attacked on July 20. He was initially declared missing, but after an investigation, the IDF declared the 20-year-old staff-sergeant killed in action.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly promised to return Goldin’s and Shaul’s remains to Israel, asking representatives from the United Nations and other countries for help.

IDF soldiers Oron Shaul (left) and Hadar Goldin (right) (Flash90)
IDF soldiers Oron Shaul (left) and Hadar Goldin (right) (Flash90)

Reports that Hamas was interested in negotiating the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners held in Israel in exchange for the remains, along with two Israeli citizens believed held in the Strip, came to light early last month.

“Hamas wants a Shalit 2 deal, with the release of hundreds of prisoners,” the Hebrew daily Yedioth Ahronoth quoted an unnamed senior Israeli official as saying.

But senior Hamas official Salah Bardawil flatly denied the report and claimed there was no contact of any sort between the two sides regarding prisoners.

According to Bardawil, Hamas “does not know of any direct or indirect negotiations concerning a prisoner swap deal between Hamas and Israel,” Yedioth’s sister website Ynet reported.

Israel and Hamas do not officially maintain direct contact, and any deal would have to be mediated by international parties.

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