The Gaza-based terrorist group Hamas has rejected requests by Egyptian intelligence to disclose details about the status of IDF soldiers declared killed in action during fighting in the Strip more than three years ago, and whose remains are apparently being held by the Palestinian organization.
The group also refused to provide the Egyptians with information about other missing Israeli persons believed to be in Gaza, according to the Walla news site Saturday.
The Lebanese Al-Akhbar newspaper reported Saturday that Hamas informed Egypt it would not negotiate the matter unless Israel provided a commitment to implement all the clauses of the 2011 Shalit deal, in which the Jewish state released more than 1,000 convicted terrorists.
Last month, US President Donald Trump’s special envoy to the Middle East, Jason Greenblatt, seemed to contradict Israel by implying that IDF Staff Sgt. Oron Shaul is still alive, despite the army declaring him dead.
On July 20, 2014, during the Gaza war of that year, the armored personnel carrier in which Shaul’s unit was traveling was attacked by Hamas terrorists with an anti-tank missile in the Shejaiya neighborhood of Gaza City. Initially, the Israel Defense Forces declared that six soldiers were killed and that Shaul was missing.
Five days later, military forensic specialists determined that Shaul had also been killed in the battle and that his remains had been snatched by Hamas, based on interviews with other soldiers involved in the fighting and evidence from the scene. The staff sergeant’s family did not accept the army’s pronouncement and has repeatedly claimed that he is still alive, calling for him to again be listed as “missing in action.”
In a separate case during the 2014 war, another IDF soldier, Lt. Hadar Goldin, was captured by Hamas terrorists and smuggled into a tunnel in the southern Gaza city of Rafah. He too was first considered kidnapped, but was later determined to have been killed, something his family has accepted. In the case of Goldin, sufficient remains were found in order to hold a funeral in accordance with Jewish law, which requires some portion of the body for burial.
Though the army initially gave them both the status of soldiers killed in action whose burial places are unknown, that was later changed to a new designation: soldiers who were killed in action, but are being held captive.
“Hamas must… permit the repatriation of Hadar Goldin’s remains and the release of Oron Shaul, as well as the release of Israeli civilians — Avraham Abera Mengistu, Hisham al-Sayed and Juma Ibrahim Abu Ghanima,” Greenblatt wrote in a tweet, one in a series on how the terrorist group is violating international law and harming Palestinians in Gaza.
In his tweet, the envoy also appeared to go against official Israeli policy concerning one of three Israeli citizens who entered the Gaza Strip following Operation Protective Edge.
As a result, in discussions, Israeli officials generally mention only Mengistu and al-Sayed as being in Hamas captivity.
Israel believes Mengistu and al-Sayed are currently in Hamas captivity and has regularly called for their release. The two men, who have apparent histories of mental illness, each entered the coastal enclave voluntarily in 2014 and 2015, respectively. However, the status of the third, Abu Ghanima, is less clear, and he is not necessarily considered to have been taken hostage by the terror group.
Israeli officials have reportedly been negotiating with Hamas through third parties in order to secure the release of the two fallen soldiers and two civilians, but to no avail so far.
If the soldiers were still alive or even if their statuses were unclear, it could give Hamas far greater leverage in negotiations.
In 2011, Israel released over 1,000 convicted terrorists from its prisons, including the current leader of Hamas in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, in exchange for one IDF soldier, Gilad Shalit. The deal has been regularly criticized by some Israeli officials, including Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, as unacceptably lopsided.
Hamas, in an apparent attempt to reach a similar deal as in 2011, has been encouraging the belief that Shaul and Goldin were not killed.
Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report