Palestinian reconciliation an opportunity for families of those held by Hamas

Relatives hope PA can be held accountable for return of missing loved ones, as well as remains of slain soldiers

FILE - Leah Goldin, mother of fallen IDF soldier Hadar Goldin, speaks at a State Control Committee hearing in the Knesset on April 19, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
FILE - Leah Goldin, mother of fallen IDF soldier Hadar Goldin, speaks at a State Control Committee hearing in the Knesset on April 19, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Israel’s government may be ambivalent about the nascent reconciliation between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, but it outright opposes Palestinian bids for statehood recognition through international bodies, including the United Nations.

However, for one influential Israeli constituency — the families of Israelis held captive in Hamas-controlled Gaza — both developments present an opportunity: to hold someone accountable and push for the release of those still being held as well as the remains of the dead.

“Now the Palestinian Authority is responsible,” said Leah Goldin, whose son, Hadar, was killed after a ceasefire went into effect during the 2014 Gaza War.

Unlike Hamas, which is widely considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the US government and others, the Palestinian Authority is recognized as the representative of the Palestinians.

Goldin argued as much Friday at a special session of the UN Security Council convened by the United States and Ukraine.

Leah Goldin, mother of slain IDF soldier Hadar Goldin, sits alongside Ukraine’s envoy to the UN Volodymyr Yelchenko, at United Nations headquarters in New York, December 22, 2017 (UN Web TV screenshot)

If the Palestinian Authority fails to address Hamas’s refusal to release Hadar Goldin, Oron Shaul, and two Israeli civilians, Avera Mengistu and Juba Abu Ganima, who crossed over into Gaza, they would be “violating international law,” she said. Mengistu and Ganima are presumed alive.

Alongside her at the Security Council meeting was Irwin Cotler, the former Canadian justice minister who is representing Goldin pro bono in her attempts to obtain answers about her son. He noted that the Palestinian Authority had recently joined the International Criminal Court. That action, taken in order to advance criminal prosecutions of Israelis. also made the PA more accountable, Cotler said.

The PA, by not taking action, is in “standing violation” of prohibitions in the statute that created the ICC against “outrages upon personal dignity” and “humiliating and degrading treatment,” he said.

Former Canadian justice minister Irwin Cotler speaks to the media during a press conference in Jerusalem, Dec. 30, 2009 (photo credit: AP/Dan Balilty)

In an interview, Cotler, who now is the chairman of the Raoul Wallenberg Center for Human Rights, said that strategy could extend to other bids by the Palestinians to join international bodies with member nation status.

“You can’t join international agreements unless you are fulfilling obligations under international law,” Cotler said. “You cannot be a violator of international humanitarian law and also be a member in good standing of these organizations.”

To be clear, neither Goldin nor Cotler endorsed reconciliation or Palestinian ascension to statehood status at international organizations; instead, they were arguing that as long as these processes were underway, the Palestinian Authority should assume the concomitant responsibilities.

Reconciliation between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, launched in October, is still in its nascent stages. It’s not clear to what degree Hamas has transferred powers to the PA, and whether the Palestinian Authority has made an issue of conveying information to Israeli families about the living captives or the remains of the dead. A JTA request for comment from the office of the Palestine Liberation Organization envoy to Washington was not answered.

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

Israel has expressed concerns about reconciliation, and whether it will leave Hamas militias in place. It is adamantly opposed to recognition of Palestinian statehood outside the context of peace talks, which have yet to resume, although the Trump administration is endeavoring to restart talks.

Palestinians in the past have countered that Israel also uses captives and the remains of the fallen as bargaining chips. Cotler said these were not comparable to the plight of the Goldins: Israel, he said, abided by laws requiring that information be conveyed to the families of captives and the fallen. Moreover, he said, Goldin was not nabbed during the conflict but in its immediate aftermath, likely for the express purpose of being a bargaining chip.

“At this point, it is known who is being held, where they are being held,” he said. “There is also a process of legal appeal in Israel.”

Goldin said she was heartened by the response to her presentation to the Security Council, first in that all but one nation — China — attended, and China’s envoy sent apologies, noting a scheduling conflict. The Security Council was convened under a semiformal mechanism that does not require attendance by all members.

Avraham Mengistu, undated. (Courtesy of the Mengistu family via AP)

Among those attending was Egypt, one of a handful of nations that has influence with Hamas, through the border Egypt shares with Gaza. Cotler in his presentation noted that Hamas — and, he argued, the Palestinian Authority, by dint of the reconciliation process — was in violation of the 1990 Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, which declares that “the state and the society shall protect one’s body and burial place from desecration.”

For Egypt, the declaration is a signal of the leadership it aspires to in the Arab and Muslim worlds. The PLO is a signatory.

Egypt’s envoy did not comment, but many others at the session expressed sympathy, Goldin said, among them nations like Sweden that have an otherwise fraught relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

Also attending were countries not currently on the Security Council, which has five permanent members and 10 members elected to two-year terms. “We welcome today’s session and Canada wishes to stand in solidarity with the families — to quote former Canadian Minister of Justice Irwin Cotler, who testified before us today — we wish to tell you that you are not alone,” Louise Blais, the deputy Canadian ambassador to the United Nations, said in remarks addressed to Goldin.

Goldin credits Nikki Haley, the US envoy to the United Nations who has made bold declarations of the alliance with Israel a centerpiece of the US mission, for initiating the session and also thanked Ukraine for co-sponsoring. The issue of troops held hostage incognito is a sore point for Ukraine in its ongoing war with rebels backed by Russia.

“This is another real opportunity to resolve our case,” Goldin said. “Every country that has relations with the Palestinian Authority should consider seriously what the PA is doing to return Hadar, Oron and the civilians.”

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