Bodies-for-Prisoners Trade Complicates Gaza Cease-Fire Talks

(Bloomberg) -- Israelis whose sons were killed four years ago in a war with Hamas are demanding that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu make sure a cease-fire deal currently being negotiated guarantees the return of the soldiers’ remains.

“We have to make noise,” said Leah Goldin, mother of Lieutenant Hadar Goldin, who died in an Aug. 1, 2014, shootout with Palestinian militants. “If I let myself think it’s not going to happen, that’s the attitude of losers.”

Other Israelis warn that lopsided exchanges in the past, such as the 2011 release of soldier Gilad Shalit for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, may salve a few families’ emotional wounds but are bad for the country -- and encourage future kidnappings. Hamas, the Islamist group that rules Gaza, says the Shalit deal remains a model for future exchanges.

Talks brokered by Egypt and the United Nations to end five months of protests at the Gaza border are set to resume Saturday in Cairo after a break for a Muslim holiday. The multi-year cease-fire on the table could pave the way for lifting a decade-long Israeli blockade of Gaza, freeing more than $5 billion in international aid pledges and financing major infrastructure projects.

If no prisoner deal can be arranged, Israel may agree only to much smaller gestures to ease Gaza’s humanitarian situation in exchange for quiet at the border, without the plans to rehabilitate the territory.

Weekly Protests

A sliver of coastal land that’s home to 2 million Palestinians, Gaza has been the scene of air-raids, firefights and missile battles since residents started weekly protests at the border fence in March, demanding to reclaim ancestral lands in what is now Israel. Israeli troops have killed more than 170 Palestinians in the protests. Gazans have launched hundreds of rockets into Israeli towns and sent arson kites and balloons across the border, razing thousands of acres of Israeli farmland.

The protests come as Gaza suffers from crippling unemployment, a lack of clean drinking water and electricity shortages, a product of Hamas misrule, the Israeli and Egyptian blockade of the territory and sanctions imposed by the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority. President Donald Trump’s budget cuts to the UN refugee agency serving Palestinians threaten to further strain social services.

Handing over the bodies of Goldin -- killed in a Hamas attack launched about 90 minutes after a cease-fire had been announced -- and Staff Sergeant Oron Shaul, killed in fighting 12 days earlier, remains one of the main sticking points in truce talks. Both were officially declared dead by the army based on limited forensic and intelligence information, an unusual step in Israel, where soldiers are classified as missing in action unless their deaths are proven. Hamas refuses to provide information on the soldiers’ fate.

Hamas, which is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the U.S. and European Union, also holds two Israeli civilians who entered Gaza voluntarily and are said by their families to suffer from mental disabilities.

Released, rearrested

Nickolay Mladenov, UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, has been shuttling among Gaza, Jerusalem and Egypt for weeks trying to secure the cease-fire. The Bulgarian diplomat, who has met with the Goldin family several times, has repeatedly raised the issue of the missing Israelis in Gaza, his office said in an email.

Mladenov calls on Hamas “to abide by international law and to enable their immediate return to Israel,” his office said.

Before any deal, Israel must lift its blockade and release some 70 Palestinians who it rearrested after they were exchanged for Shalit in 2011, Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem said. Only then will the group discuss releasing the soldiers’ bodies -- if Israel also agrees to free additional Palestinian prisoners, he said. An estimated 7,000 Palestinians are held in Israel jails on security-related allegations.

Israel says some of those released in the Shalit deal were rearrested after they returned to militant activity.

Lopsided Deal

The release of Shalit, a tank gunner captured in a 2006 cross-border raid by Hamas commandos, turned into a popular crusade led by his parents during the five years he was held hostage. Similar imbalances marked prisoner exchanges in the past, but Israelis are wary of such deals now, said Shlomo Brom, a retired Israeli general and senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

“Shalit was a young soldier who was captured when he was on duty, and Israelis felt great sympathy for his family,” Brom said. “Here we’re talking mostly about bodies, and two disturbed persons who are completely responsible for what happened to them.”

Goldin’s case has been taken up by Irwin Cotler, Canada’s former justice minister and head of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights in Montreal. Cotler has appeared with Goldin’s parents at the United Nations and European Commission in Brussels, making the argument that holding back the remains of the soldiers is a violation of international humanitarian law.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is facing public pressure to bring quiet to towns bordering Gaza, says he has insisted that Goldin and Shaul’s bodies be returned, though precisely when that would happen in the course of a cease-fire process is unclear.

“No arrangement will be complete without that issue being addressed.” said Michael Oren, Netanyahu’s deputy minister for public diplomacy. “If people are shooting at us -- I include fire kites and balloons -- we have to stop that” first, he said. “But there are other issues, and primary among them are the prisoner issues.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.