During the periodic meetings that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds with the families of the two Israel Defense Forces soldiers killed in the Gaza Strip in 2014, Lt. Hadar Goldin and Staff Sgt. Oron Shaul, he reiterates his promise to “bring back the boys” (in practice, their bodies) from Hamas. But in at least the most recent of these meetings, which have been held in the shadow of open and mounting tension with the prime minister, some members of the families have noticed a certain change of tone. Netanyahu noted that his predecessors also had a hard time getting back the bodies of fallen soldiers from the enemy, or failed completely to do so. Some past military operations and wars, he added, ended without any agreement at all.
By way of example, Netanyahu listed the following precedents: the failure to locate the bodies of the soldiers missing in action from the battle at Sultan Yakub in the Lebanon War of 1982; the fact that it took almost two years after the cease-fire that ended the Second Lebanon War in 2006 for the bodies of the two abducted IDF reservists, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, to be returned; and the fact that Operation Cast Lead ended in 2009 without the return of the captive soldier Gilad Shalit, for whose release a deal was struck only in 2011, five years after his abduction. Netanyahu made no reference to the continuing failure of a number of governments, including his first one, to locate Israel Air Force navigator Ron Arad, who has been missing in action since being shot down over Lebanon in 1986.
Netanyahu’s new approach is thus that we are making every effort, but there’s no guarantee of success; other prime ministers also failed, in some cases. The background to this argument is obvious: The premier wants to conclude indirectly an arrangement with Hamas in the Strip, which at this stage will not include a deal for the return of captives and MIAs. The hope is that after a stable, binding cease-fire is attained, there will be a second stage of negotiations when the issue of the four Israelis – the return of the bodies of Goldin and Shaul, and the handing back of two civilians, Abera Mengistu and Hisham Sayed – will be resolved. This approach is naturally viewed with skepticism by the families, who want to ensure that their distress will be relieved as soon as possible.
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Lately, the mistrust between the prime minister and the families has been aggravated because of an unfounded claim by a journalist close to the Netanyahu family, according to which it’s doubtful whether Hamas is even in possession of either the soldiers’ bodies or of the two citizens. That allegation, from which Netanyahu has kept a safe distance, was apparently aimed at achieving a similar goal: to shroud the whole situation in fog, in order to reduce the pressure on the prime minister to strike a deal. This is the reason Simha Goldin, Hadar’s father, has launched a scathing attack on the claim.
Senior IDF brass who have been asked about the developments have clarified that, according to the intelligence the army possesses, Hamas definitely has the two bodies and is apparently also holding the two civilians. At the same time, several former senior figures in the defense establishment who are well informed about the contacts with Hamas – including former negotiator Col. (res.) Lior Lotan and Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Gilad – have expressed doubts about the possibility of striking a separate deal for the prisoners and MIAs once a cease-fire agreement is reached.
As far as the families know, an agreement for the return of the bodies and civilians is still remote. Still, a certain prospect for progress exists in connection with an easing of Israel’s position regarding the Palestinian prisoners freed in the Shalit deal in 2011. Following the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens in Gush Etzion in June 2014, Israel, as a punitive measure, rearrested more than 60 Palestinians in the West Bank who had been released in exchange for Shalit. They were accused of violating the terms of their release, and were sent back to prison to serve out the remainder of the original sentences imposed on them before they were freed. After Operation Protective Edge, in 2014, Hamas demanded the prisoners’ release as part of Israel’s payment for the return of the soldiers’ bodies.
At present there are fewer of the Shalit-deal prisoners in jail, as some have completed their sentences and been permanently released. That reduces somewhat the scale of the concessions that can be demanded. Israel is also holding the bodies of dozens of Palestinians from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip who were killed in violent incidents involving the IDF, and whose return is also expected to be part of a future deal.
Bad news and (relatively) good news
Netanyahu’s recent comments to the Goldin family reflect his persistent effort to reach a long-term cease-fire with Hamas and to forestall another war in Gaza. In the last few weeks there has in fact been a decline in the intensity of violence along the border with the Strip, and a considerable decrease in the number of incendiary devices launched from there at nearby Israeli communities. In response, Israel has reopened (more or less) the terminal for passage of goods at Kerem Shalom and re-extended the area in which fishing is permitted off the Gaza coast.
The main obstacle to a deal is now more Palestinian than Israeli, in the form of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The United Nations and Egypt can create an alternative route for the delivery of fuel to Gaza (currently, it comes by way of the Palestinian Authority), with Qatari funding, but they are having a hard time organizing a comprehensive method to transfer funds for rehabilitation of the Strip that will bypass Abbas completely. Abbas, for his part, is concerned that any arrangement reached in the Strip will pave the way for what remains of the “deal of the century” touted by U.S. President Donald Trump – long-term rehabilitation and quiet for Hamas in Gaza, a measure of economic relief for the PA in the West Bank, and the systematic erosion of the Palestinian demands in negotiations for a final-status agreement.
Accordingly, efforts to reach a broader arrangement appear to be bogged down for now, and the PA and Hamas are unable to achieve the reconciliation that Egypt views as essential for such a comprehensive agreement. The bad news is that the momentum that existed in mid-August in both Israel-Hamas and PA-Hamas talks, after the most recent exchanges of blows between Israel and Hamas, has apparently faded. The relatively good news? No one is yet rushing into war.
In the meantime, the Trump administration is stepping up its pressure on the Palestinians via a series of economic and declarative measures: cutting off funding for UNRWA, the UN refugee agency; backtracking on recognition of the Palestinians as refugees; slashing $200 million in annual U.S. support for projects within the territory controlled by the PA; cutting $25 million from aid to East Jerusalem hospitals; and, the latest measure, shutting down the offices of the Palestine Liberation Organization in Washington. As in the case of the transfer of the American Embassy to Jerusalem, some of Washington’s moves can be seen as justified, with the aim of effecting a needed change of direction from the years in which the United States walked on tiptoe for fear of upsetting the Palestinians. There was no substantive reason to keep the embassy in Tel Aviv, and there’s no reason to perpetuate the refugee status of the Palestinians into what are now the fourth and fifth generations.
The problem, as usual with Trump, is that the president is preoccupied with the impression his declarations make and is not taking the time to deal with their implications. Just as the transfer of the embassy ratcheted up the fraught situation along the Gaza border and fixed Abbas’ position as the contrarian who refuses to return to the diplomatic process – cutting off UNRWA funds endangers the stability of both the West Bank and in particular of the Strip. Over time, if no appropriate budgetary alternative is found to underwrite the UN agency’s activity, the risk of things spinning out of control in Gaza will grow, as the Israeli defense establishment has been warning.
It’s true that there’s a dissonance between Palestinian militancy against Israel in the international arena and the close coordination maintained by PA security forces with the IDF and the Shin Bet security service. Nothing has changed regarding the interest Abbas and his aides have in secret coordination with Israel in order to block Hamas from operating in the West Bank. But historical precedents cannot be ignored. When the Palestinians were pushed into a corner internationally, due, respectively, to diplomatic paralysis in 1987, and to the collapse of the negotiations at Camp David in 2000 (with Prime Minister Ehud Barak and U.S. President Bill Clinton blaming Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for the failure), the seeds for the two intifadas were planted. That could happen again, especially in the Gaza Strip, which is why the defense establishment is so worried.