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US envoy says Biden admin will press for release of Israelis held in Gaza

Linda Thomas-Greenfield says she promised Leah Goldin to ‘do everything possible to support her efforts to have her son returned’

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield attends a Cabinet meeting with President Joe Biden in the East Room of the White House, on April 1, 2021, in Washington. (AP/Evan Vucci)
US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield attends a Cabinet meeting with President Joe Biden in the East Room of the White House, on April 1, 2021, in Washington. (AP/Evan Vucci)

United States Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield said the Biden administration will “continue to fiercely advocate” for the return of the two captured civilians and the bodies of two fallen Israel Defense Forces soldiers currently being held in Gaza.

Speaking on Wednesday at the UN Security Council’s monthly session to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Thomas-Greenfield recalled a meeting she held last month with Leah Goldin, the mother of Hadar, one of the two soldiers whose bodies are being held by Hamas.

“For the last seven years, the Goldins have advocated endlessly for his return. When I met with her, I promised her I would do everything possible to support her efforts to have her son returned. No parent — no one — should have to endure such a wretched experience,” Thomas-Greenfield said.

Goldin traveled to DC last month with outgoing president Reuven Rivlin, and met with US officials to push for the return of her son’s body.

Israelis Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed are believed to be held by Hamas in Gaza, along with the bodies of Goldin and Oron Shaul. Indirect prisoner-swap talks in Cairo between Israel and Hamas are currently stalled amid the two sides’ ongoing failure to reach a compromise.

“The United States will continue to fiercely advocate for the return of Israeli soldiers killed in action in Gaza, as well as the return of Israeli civilians held captive there,” Thomas-Greenfield told the UN Security Council. “And we will continue to push for decency, for humanity, for equality, and for peace for all.”

Clockwise from top left: Oron Shaul, Avera Mengistu, Hadar Goldin and Hisham al-Sayed. (Flash 90/Courtesy)

Turning to the Palestinian Authority, Thomas-Greenfield expressed concern over recent reports that the PA “is acting to restrict Palestinian freedom of expression and harass civil society activists and organizations. That is unacceptable.”

She said she was particularly disturbed by the death of Palestinian activist Nizar Banat while in PA custody, adding, “The circumstances of his death must be fully investigated and those responsible held accountable.”

In his own address to the UN Security Council on Wednesday, Israeli Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan said Hamas is constantly seeking excuses to attack Israel.

“In May this year, Hamas launched thousands of rockets against millions of Israeli civilians,” said Erdan. “Those who truly understand the Middle East know that this was a reaction to the Palestinian Authority’s decision, once again, to cancel planned elections. Hamas was seeking to increase its political power and popularity on the Palestinian street at the expense of the Palestinian Authority, and, so, looked for an excuse to attack Israel. It found an excuse. A very, very weak one.”

Thomas-Greenfield, meanwhile, expressed US commitment to a two-state solution and its opposition to “efforts to single out Israel unfairly in UN forums.”

She said Washington opposes certain actions by Israel and the Palestinians, such as “settlement activity, annexation of territory, evictions, demolitions, incitement to violence, and compensating individuals imprisoned for acts of terrorism.”

Erdan said the UN Security Council “fails to take strong action against the world’s worst human rights violators like Iran and Syria, and instead, singles out the world’s only Jewish state.”

Such behavior, he said, leads companies like Ben & Jerry’s to “allow themselves to single out Israel for boycott… In light of these double standards, the claims of UN bodies and companies like Ben and Jerry’s to be motivated by high ideals and objective standards melt to nothing, like ice cream in the summer sun.”

Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan addresses the General Assembly, on May 20, 2021. (Screen capture/UN)

Thomas-Greenfield said the US hopes to cooperate with Israel and the Palestinian Authority to maintain calm at the Temple Mount and in Sheikh Jarrah, where Palestinian families face eviction by Israeli authorities.

She highlighted the decision earlier this month by the Biden administration to sign a “framework for cooperation” with the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA.

“UNRWA and its staff are tirelessly committed to serving the needs of Palestinian refugees — but the agency needs operational and managerial improvements,” Thomas-Greenfield said.

“The United States has zero tolerance for manifestations of antisemitism, racism, or other forms of hatred in UN agencies, and that includes UNRWA. This is why our framework of cooperation — the most robust to date — outlines expectations and includes benchmarks to increase UNRWA’s transparency and accountability, consistent with UN principles, including neutrality.”

The ambassador also noted the subsequent US contribution of $136 million in humanitarian assistance for UNRWA, bringing the year’s total to $318 million, after such figures had been cut significantly by the Trump administration.

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