Turkey Promises Israel to Seek Return of Missing Citizens, Soldiers' Remains From Gaza

Two citizens as well as the bodies of two soldiers are believed to be held in the Hamas-controlled enclave.

Avera Mengistu's family holds a protest in front of the Erez Crossing in 2015.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

ROME - Turkey has formally assured Israel on Sunday that it will discuss with Hamas the release of two Israelis believed held in the Gaza Strip, as well as the return of the bodies to Israel of two soldiers killed during the 2014 conflict, a senior Israeli official said Sunday evening. 

The official told reporters that the Turkish negotiation team handed a letter to that effect to its Israeli counterpart during a meeting in Rome, Italy, meant to clinch a reconciliation agreement between the former allies. The announcement of the reconciliation was expected to be made Monday noon.

According to the official, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the families of the two missing Israelis -  Avera Mengistu and  Hisham al-Sayeed - to brief them on this latest development. 

The family of Mengistu, who went missing after crossing the border into Gaza apparently of his own volition in September 2014, came out against the agreement earlier in the week, and staged a protest outside the prime minister's residence on Sunday. 

The parents of two Israeli soldiers killed in the 2014 Gaza war, Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, released separate statements slamming the reconciliation deal with Turkey because it does not include the return of their sons' remains from Gaza as a condition for the normalization of ties.

Nearly one month ago, the IDF decided to recognize Goldin and Shaul as "missing in action or captive." Goldin's status had been defined as killed in action, while Shaul was defined as killed in action whose place of burial was unknown. The difference between the two stems from the fact that parts of Goldin's body were retrieved and buried in Israel, while Shaul's body was never found.

The senior official, who is involved in the substance of the talks but asked not to be mentioned by name due to the sensitivity of the matter, noted that two months ago, Netanyahu instructed the Israeli negotiating team to raise the issue of the bodies of the two Israeli soldiers in the course of the talks. The aim, the official said, was to obtain the same Turkish commitment to use its influence on Hamas in Gaza to bring about a breakthrough in the case of the two soldiers. The matter has now come to fruition.

"We asked and received an official letter in which Turkish President Erdogan instructs Turkish intelligence to work to conclude the subject of the Israeli prisoners and the missing in Gaza," the senior official said. "This is what Turkey can do at the moment to assist on the subject."

Prime Minister Netanyahu told the families of the two soldiers and the two Israeli civilians who are missing in Gaza about the contacts to obtain the Turkish commitment. "Immediately after the letter was sent to us today [Sunday], the prime minister called the families and briefed them," the senior official said. "The families were pleasantly surprised."