Parents of fallen soldier held by Hamas demand negotiator

Relatives of Oron Shaul threaten to go to High Court unless new envoy appointed, say government treating them with ‘contempt’

Parents of late Israeli soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin speak with the press at the protest tent outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's residence in Jerusalem on June 29, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Parents of late Israeli soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin speak with the press at the protest tent outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's residence in Jerusalem on June 29, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The family of a slain IDF soldier whose body was being held in Gaza by the Hamas terrorist group warned Sunday it would petition the High Court of Justice if a new government negotiator was not appointed to oversee efforts to retrieve his remains.

“The Israeli government is treating IDF soldiers who went out to defend the State of Israel with contempt,” the Shaul family, whose son Oron’s body has been held by Hamas since the 2014 Gaza war, wrote in a letter.

The letter was prompted by the resignation in August of Lior Lotan, who was appointed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to lead efforts for the return of the bodies of Shaul and fellow slain IDF soldier Hadar Goldin from Hamas. Both soldiers were killed during a 50-day conflict in 2014. The terror group is also believed to be holding three live 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.

“It is inconceivable that for over a month there is no government official to deal solely with the issue of captured and missing [soldiers],” the family said. “The fact that no new negotiator has been appointed attests to the government’s negligence in its conduct toward us and Oron, who still has not returned from the battlefield.”

Oron Shaul, Hadar Goldin and Avraham Mengistu. (Flash90/The Times of Israel)

Lotan told the prime minister that the position was “extremely demanding, both professionally and personally and it was therefore appropriate to change personnel every few years,” the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement at the time of his resignation.

A government official on Sunday said Netanyahu met with the Shaul and Goldin families late last month and updated them on efforts to see their sons’ remains returned to Israel for burial.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu is dealing with this and is committed to the return of the soldiers and civilians being held in Gaza,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The official also said Netanyahu has raised the issue with world leaders and has been interviewing candidates for the post of negotiator, with the aim of appointing a replacement as soon as possible.

“The prime minister raises the matter during every diplomatic meeting, as he recently did with [US] President [Donald] Trump and Egypt’s President [Abdel-Fattah] el-Sissi,” said the official.

Lior Lotan speaking to Channel 2 television in 2011. (screen capture: Channel 2)

Following Lotan’s resignation in August, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said a replacement for Lotan should not be appointed until Israel draws up “clear boundaries” for prisoner swap negotiations in order to “make clear to [Israel’s enemies] that we have no intention of compromising on the security of the people of Israel.”

Liberman also said 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, pointing to the high recidivism rate among terrorists released in the deal as grounds for opposing a future prisoner swap.

The father of Hadar Goldin strongly condemned Liberman at the time for his remarks, calling the defense minister “weak” and “cowardly.”

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.

Leader of the Hamas terror group in Gaza Yahya Sinwar attends a gathering in the southern Gaza Strip city of Khan Yunis on July 22, 2017. (AFP Photo/Said Khatib)

Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar reportedly said last month that Hamas has accepted an Egyptian proposal for a prisoner swap with Israel and is awaiting Jerusalem’s response to the offer.

His remark came after the Palestinian daily Al Quds quoted sources in Cairo as saying the Egyptian offer would see Israel first hand over the bodies of 39 Palestinians killed in the 2014 Gaza war, 19 of whom are Hamas members, in exchange for Hamas acknowledging the fate of IDF soldiers Shaul and Goldin.

In the second stage of the Egyptian plan, Israel will reportedly release the so-called “Shalit captives” — 58 Palestinians who were rearrested in the summer of 2014 after being set free in the 2011 swap for IDF soldier Gilad Shalit. Hamas will then enter into genuine prisoner exchange talks with the Jewish state, the report said. The talks would reportedly be mediated by Egyptian intelligence services.

Sinwar also said at the time Lotan resigned over internal differences regarding the Israeli position toward a prisoner swap.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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