Meeting with the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Jerusalem on Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused the Hamas terror group of “unbelievable cruelty” for holding a number of Israeli citizens and the bodies of two IDF soldiers.
“We are concerned about this unbelievable cruelty. We have bodies of our slain soldiers that are kept [by Hamas] and even information about them is kept. And no less important, we have innocent, defenseless Israeli civilians held in Gaza,” Netanyahu told the organization’s president Peter Maurer.
“[They are] kept in a very closed and cruel way,” he added.
Netanyahu thanked Maurer for his organization’s efforts to return the bodies of the IDF soldiers and Israeli citizens “in the face of this Hamas cruelty” and said the terror group was holding the Israelis “in contravention of all international norms and all the ideals the Red Cross has been established for.”
Responding to Netanyahu, Maurer said the mission to return the Israeli citizens and IDF soldiers’ bodies was one of the “longest running operations” of the Red Cross and that his organization is mandated by international law to work towards their return.
On Tuesday, Maurer visited the Gaza Strip, during which he asked senior Hamas officials to let him meet with the Israeli civilians believed to be held by the terror group.
Maurer made the request as he met with Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas political leader in the coastal enclave, the Ma’an news agency reported, citing Palestinian sources. The two men talked for an hour together with senior Hamas official Ghazi Hamad.
Sinwar told Maurer that “all institutions will be open before the Red Cross to ensure the standards of international humanitarian law are being applied,” according to a Hamas statement.
It was not immediately clear whether the Red Cross director was seeking to be presented with evidence on the soldiers’ bodies, the living captives, or both.
Last month, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, who has in the past criticized the Red Cross for not helping with the missing Israelis, caused a media storm by saying that 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.
Sinwar responded by declaring in a press release there could be no deal without Israel releasing Palestinian prisoners in reference to a number of the terror group’s operatives Israel has rearrested since their release in the Shalit deal.
Liberman’s comments drew the ire of the families of those held, with the father of one of the deceased IDF soldiers calling the defense minister “weak” and “cowardly.”
Hamas is thought to be detaining three Israelis — Avraham Abera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, as well as Juma Ibrahim Abu Ghanima, all of whom entered the enclave on their own accord over the past several years — as well as the bodies of two IDF soldiers — Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin — who were killed during the 2014 war between Israel and the terror group.
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.
At a memorial in July marking three years since the 2014 Gaza conflict, Netanyahu hinted at 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.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.