President Reuven Rivlin on Monday said Israel remains committed to alleviating dire humanitarian conditions in the Gaza Strip, but will not allow major efforts to revive the Palestinian enclave until the bodies of two Israeli soldiers held by Hamas are returned.
“As long as Hamas continues to run Gaza as it does with only one purpose — the destruction of the State of Israel and attacking its citizens — and holds the bodies of our soldiers who didn’t return from battle, Gaza won’t be rehabilitated,” Rivlin said, during a ceremony at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl military cemetery for Israeli troops killed in the 2014 Gaza war.
At the same time, the president stressed Israel’s commitment to ensuring the basic needs of Palestinians in Gaza are met. “We are sorry for the Gazans who are rotting under the yoke of Hamas: For the children living in distress, without basic infrastructure, sanitary conditions, and a shortage of food,” Rivlin said.
The president’s remarks came amid an aid push by the US and others to address the humanitarian situation in Gaza, which suffers from high unemployment and lack of electricity, potable water, and proper sewage treatment. Proposals recently reported on in Israeli and Arab media have indicated Israel is willing to take a number of steps to increase the flow of goods to the Strip, but will not do so without the return of the bodies of Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin — the IDF soldiers killed in the war whose remains are held by Hamas.
The families of Shaul and Goldin, who have led a years-long campaign for the return of their sons’ bodies, boycotted the ceremony in protest of the government over Hamas’ continued possession of the soldiers’ remains.
“It is inconceivable they’re sanctifying the rehabilitation of Gaza before the bodies of the boys are returned,” Leah Goldin, Hadar’s mother, told Hadashot TV news from the “alternative memorial ceremony” outside the Prime Minister’s Residence.
She also criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for not speaking with the families regularly.
“He did the opposite of what was promised us,” Leah Goldin said. “We are fed up with talk.”
Speaking at the Mount Herzl ceremony, Netanyahu said Israel remains committed to the return of Shaul and Goldin’s bodies.
“We continue to invest great efforts in the return of our warriors: Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin. Not everything is visible to the eye — and that’s a good thing. This is a commitment that will continue unabated until their return,” said Netanyahu.
He also said Israel is working to return Avraham Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, who have been held by Hamas after each entered Gaza on their own accord.
Looking back at the 2014 Gaza war, Netanyahu hailed the 50-day campaign against Hamas for bringing quiet to Israel’s south.
“The communities of the western Negev have seen unprecedented growth and expansion in recent years unlike any since the establishment of the state,” he said. “When I talk with residents of the area, they express tremendous thanks for those who charged forward for them.”
He also said the war, known in Hebrew as Operation Protective Edge, was necessary to remove the threat posed by Hamas.
“In light of the grave threat we set out on a justified, moral, [and] necessary operation. The attacker was attacked — attacked before it managed to carry out its plot,” Netanyahu said.
He also warned Hamas it would pay an “unbearable price” if it enters another armed conflict with Israel.
The war initially began primarily as an aerial campaign in response to repeated rocket attacks from Gaza, similar to the 2012 Operation Pillar of Defense. But after Hamas made use of its tunnel network to carry out attacks inside Israel, the focus shifted to tackling the subterranean threat.
A total of 74 Israelis — 68 soldiers, 11 of whom were killed in cross-border tunnel attacks; and 6 civilians — died in the conflict. In Gaza, more than 2,000 people were killed, with Israel putting the percentage of civilians killed at approximately 50 percent. Additionally, Gaza itself was left badly damaged by the fighting.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.