Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday asked UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to use his position in the international community to help secure the release of the remains of Israeli soldiers held by Hamas as well as Israeli civilians believed held captive in the Gaza Strip.
“I want to thank you, Mr. Secretary, for agreeing to meet with the Goldin, Shaul and Mengistu families,” Netanyahu said at a joint press conference ahead of their meeting together at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem.
The families of Lt. Hadar Goldin and Sgt. Oron Shaul, both killed in the 2014 war in Gaza, as well as Avraham Abera Mengistu, who disappeared into the Strip later in 2014 and who is believed to be still alive, have long called for the government to make sure the return of their sons was included in the agreement. A fourth unidentified Israeli man is also being held in Gaza, according to Israeli officials.
Calling Hamas a terrorist organization with “genocidal aims,” Netanyahu said the group “is cruelly and illegally holding the remains of our soldiers and holding our citizens. I ask you to use your standing to help return home these soldiers and these citizens.”
The issue has leaped to the top of the Israeli agenda in recent days amid a detente agreement with Turkey that does not include Gaza giving up the bodies and prisoners, as had been hoped by the families of the four missing Israelis.
Netanyahu also thanked Ban for his acknowledgement of the bias Israel faces in UN institutions.
“I remember well when you came to Israel in 2013, you said that Israel and the Israeli people face some bias. That’s an understatement,” Netanyahu said. “But you also said that Israel must be treated equally at the UN. I appreciate your candor and this clear moral stance.”
Netanyahu added: “The singling out of Israel and the unfair treatment that it receives is a palpable threat to the future of the UN and not just for the interests of our country,” as it undermined “the credibility of the UN.”
Ban said he understood Israel’s frustrations and fears about resolving the conflict with the Palestinians but urged Netanyahu to pursue a two-state solution for reaching peace.
“I encourage you to take the courageous steps necessary to prevent a one-state reality of perpetual conflict,” Ban said. “No solutions to the conflict will be possible without the recognition that both Palestinians and Jews have undeniable historic and religious connection to this land. No solutions can come through violence. It must be based on mutual respect and recognition of the legitimate aspirations of both peoples.”
Ban said he understood Israel’s frustration that “sometimes your country is held to a different standard at the United Nations, the fear that your country and people are under constant threat.”
He also seemed to back the Israeli position of direct talks being the only way to solve the conflict with the Palestinians, though he added the international community can help.
“No solutions can be imposed from the outside, they must be based on direct negotiations on the final status issues,” he said. “The international community can and must support all these efforts.”
Ban pledged to keep working until his last day in office on behalf of “peace and justice and dignity” for the people of Israel and Palestinians.
Earlier Tuesday, Ban visited the Gaza Strip, including a stop at a Gaza school, where he bemoaned the plight of Gazans, saying that “the closure of Gaza suffocates its people, stifles its economy and impedes reconstruction efforts.”
“It’s a collective punishment for which there must be accountability,” the secretary-general added, apparently endorsing a key Palestinian claim about Israel’s blockade of the territory.
Israel says it imposed the blockade to prevent Hamas from importing weapons.
Ban visited the region as part of a global tour during his last year as the head of the UN.
AP contributed to this report.