US opposes conditioning Gaza reconstruction on return of IDF troops’ bodies

As Israel seeks to link post-war rebuilding in the Strip with prisoner swap, Biden administration concerned demand will derail Cairo negotiations aimed at maintaining ceasefire

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

Palestinian workers recycle metal rods from the rubble of a building destroyed by Israeli air strikes during an 11-day conflict last month, in Gaza City on June 29, 2021. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)
Palestinian workers recycle metal rods from the rubble of a building destroyed by Israeli air strikes during an 11-day conflict last month, in Gaza City on June 29, 2021. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration opposes Israel’s desire to condition post-war reconstruction projects in Gaza on the return of the bodies of the fallen IDF soldiers held by Hamas, two Western diplomats told The Times of Israel Monday.

In the past, Jerusalem had agreed to hold a separate series of indirect talks with Hamas — one for a prisoner exchange, and another for Gaza reconstruction and securing a long-term truce.

However, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is intent on combining the two issues, with an Israeli official telling The Times of Israel that the new government won’t enable long-term rehabilitation projects as long as Hamas refuses to return the bodies of IDF soldiers Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul.

The bodies of the two Israeli servicemen have been held since the previous Gaza war in 2014. Two Israeli civilians, Abera Menginstu and Hisham al-Sayed, are also being held in the Hamas-run enclave after entering Gaza on their own accord. Their families say they suffer from mental illness.

“All plans to rehabilitate Gaza must include bringing back our boys,” Israel’s Ambassador to the US and UN Gilad Erdan said Sunday at an event with American Jewish leaders.

An Israeli security delegation passed along this message last week during the first round of indirect talks held in Cairo since Bennett’s government was sworn in on June 13, according to a Western diplomat familiar with the matter.

But for Egyptian mediators well-versed in Hamas’s position, “this was a non-starter,” a diplomat familiar with the negotiations said.

Hamas believes it can receive far more than humanitarian gestures in exchange for the bodies and civilians it currently holds, the diplomat said, following the 2011 prisoner swap for captive IDF soldier Gilad Shalit. That exchange saw former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu agree to release over 1,000 Palestinian security prisoners.

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

The hardened position of the new Israeli government is also opposed by the Biden administration, which is concerned that a breakdown of talks will lead to renewed violence — something the US wants to avoid in order to focus on other foreign policy issues, a Western diplomat said.

President Reuven Rivlin made a personal appeal to US President Joe Biden during his Monday White House visit, according to a diplomatic official present at the meet.

Hadar Goldin’s mother, Leah, was also in Washington and New York this week for meetings with senior US and UN officials, urging them to seize the “window of opportunity,” as the sides enter post-war negotiations, to demand that Hamas abide by UN Security Council Resolution 2474, mandating the return of missing persons following armed conflict.

Speaking Tuesday to Channel 12, Goldin said the terror organization must not be offered any additional “humanitarian gifts” so long as it continues to violate international law.

Despite its reservations on the Israeli linkage of reconstruction and captives, the Biden administration is sympathetic, and plans to ensure that the issue is raised in Cairo, according to a source familiar with the matter. The US has not sent a representative to the negotiations thus far.

Parents, family members and friends of late IDF soldier Hadar Goldin attend a demonstration outside the state memorial ceremony for the 2014 Operation Protective Edge at Mount Herzl, calling for the return of the missing soldiers Goldin and Oron Shaul who were killed and taken by Hamas during the operation 7 years earlier, seen on June 20, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

An Israeli official recognized that US concerns over the demand could derail negotiations. But the official also underlined that Israel controls several of the crossings into the coastal enclave, and that its approval will be required for many of the reconstruction projects to move forward, unless Egypt is planning on exclusively allowing its crossings to be used for the effort.

UN agencies on the ground were still assessing the damages from last month’s war, which left thousands of Gazans displaced and hundreds of buildings destroyed. Upon completing the task, they will coordinate with the US, the Palestinian Authority and Israel on how to infuse donor funds into the Strip without Hamas benefiting — a goal that previous administrations have failed to meet.

A source familiar with the matter speculated that the Israeli position will soften over time in order to maintain calm on its southern border, but admits that this new government is less willing to tolerate violent flareups, as Prime Minister Bennett is intent on “changing the paradigm” in Gaza.

The State Department did not respond to a request for comment on the matter.

A man stands outside his heavily damaged home, next to the rubble of a building that was hit by airstrikes during an 11-day war between Gaza’s Hamas rulers and Israel, in Gaza City, on Tuesday, June 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

Last month’s bout of violence saw Israel and Gaza terror groups battle for 11 days, during which Hamas launched thousands of rockets at Israeli cities. Israel responded with hundreds of airstrikes on Hamas targets.

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