US officials rebuffed claims that Washington declined to help Israel locate a missing soldier killed in Gaza in July, calling the accusation “incorrect and misleading” in an Israeli newspaper report Monday.
An American researcher said Friday that the FBI and Justice Department refused to aid Israel in finding Staff Sgt. Oron Shaul, one of two soldiers whose bodies are being held by the Hamas terror group in Gaza.
But the US officials told Haaretz that they gave Israel information in real time about Shaul’s Facebook account, which was apparently hacked by Hamas.
“There was significant cooperation between the [US government] and the [government of Israel] in developing information in support of the search for Corporal [sic] Shaul,” the officials said. “The FBI did immediately pass useful intelligence information to Israeli authorities related to Corporal Shaul’s social media account which answered the initial Israeli request.”
The request revolved around the fate of Shaul and the whereabouts of his captors. On July 20, Shaul was one of seven Israeli soldiers critically wounded when, amid fierce battles in the Shejaiya neighborhood of Gaza City, his armored personnel carrier, stuck in the middle of a city street, was hit by a Hamas anti-tank rocket.
The army was able to recover the remains of only six soldiers. There was no trace of Shaul.
At roughly the same time, Hamas’s military wing posted photos of Shaul’s ID on Twitter and reportedly hacked into his Facebook account, heightening suspicion that his remains had been taken.
Steven Emerson, the executive director of the Investigative Project on Terrorism, asserted in a Friday article published in the Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom that Israel, on July 21, asked the FBI for help. The organization could summon the IP address from which Shaul’s account had been hacked, perhaps leading to information regarding his whereabouts – an unlikely scenario, as it is doubtful that those handling Hamas media operations and those charged with abducting and holding the remains of Israeli soldiers were situated in the same spot, but still potentially an important piece of evidence.
The FBI, according to Emerson, ordered Facebook to preserve all server data relating to Shaul. At 4:25 p.m., he wrote, the FBI contacted a local branch of the US Attorney’s Office in order to serve Facebook with a legal order to reveal the information.
“Due to HAMAS status as a Designated Terrorist Organization (DTO), there is a great effort to locate those who kidnapped and/or killed ORON,” read an FBI email to the US Attorney’s Office, he wrote.
The following day, though, the FBI wrote again to the US Attorney’s Office: “Thank You for your effort, input and assistance. I regret to inform you we have been denied approval to move forward with legal process.
“We were told by our management we need a MLAT [Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty] in order to continue to assist our partner with the request in question.”
Those words, Emerson wrote, “put an immediate halt to the Israeli request.”
According to anonymous law enforcement officials who spoke with Emerson, the order to effectively cease and desist – the MLAT request takes weeks to process – came from the office of US Attorney General Eric Holder.
The Israeli army and the Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment on whether they had received information from the FBI or of what sort. The Defense Ministry did not respond in time for publication of this article.
On July 25, the army announced the death of Staff Sgt. Oron Shaul. The decision came after IDF Chief Rabbi, Brig. Gen. Rafi Peretz, a former helicopter pilot in the IAF, held a 30-hour marathon session in which other rabbis, soldiers, and top medical professionals were called to give expert opinion.
The simplest course of action, from a rabbinic position, would have been to leave the case shrouded in doubt, but Peretz told the Shaul family on Friday afternoon and again on Sunday July 27h that, although there were no remains to be interred, they should begin their mourning rituals ans sit shiva.
They did so “with a heavy heart, but like real heroes,” Peretz told Haaretz earlier this month.
The remains of both Shaul and Lt. Hadar Goldin, killed and abducted on August 1 in Rafah, remain in Hamas hands and are said to be part of future negotiations between Israel and Hamas.