US President Donald Trump’s special envoy to the Middle East, Jason Greenblatt, seemed to contradict Israel on Sunday by implying that IDF Staff Sgt. Oron Shaul is still alive, despite the army declaring him killed in action more than three years ago.
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.
On Sunday, Greenblatt seemed to accept the view of Shaul’s family that he was not killed in the conflict, known in Israel as Operation Protective Edge.
“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.
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.
As a result, in discussions, Israeli officials generally mention only Mengistu and al-Sayed as being in Hamas captivity.
Neither Greenblatt nor the White House responded to requests for clarification on the issue — namely, if the envoy indeed believes Shaul is still alive or if his phrasing was used out of respect to the staff sergeant’s family.
The Prime Minister’s Office, which is responsible for securing the release of Shaul, Goldin, Mengistu and al-Sayed, similarly refused to comment on the issue.
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.
Last April, the terrorist group released a macabre music video meant to reinforce that position.
“Mother, Mother I’m here. Why are they saying that I’m dead?” goes one of the lines of the song’s chorus.
Also, in December 2015, Hamas sent a letter to Shaul’s family, purportedly from him.
“My dearest mother, I hear it raining all around me but I cannot see or hear it. I keep waiting for happy news that will bring me back to you,” the letter to Zehava and Simha Shaul began.
“I want to be freed from captivity, and though I don’t deny I have been treated gently, I fear you have forgotten me, which fills my heart with much sadness and despair.”
Hamas has demanded that Israel release dozens of prisoners from the 2011 Shalit deal who were rearrested in the interim years, before any advancement in negotiations between the parties can take place.
Israeli officials have publicly refused such requests.
Eric Cortellessa contributed to this report.