Israel Uses Tunnel Incident to Bargain With Hamas

Palestinians won’t be allowed to search for terrorists missing in destroyed tunnel until progress is made on returning missing and slain Israelis

Hadar Goldin's family in August 2014.
Nir Elias/Reuters

Israel will not allow Palestinians to search for the terrorists still missing in the cross-border tunnel Israel destroyed this week unless progress is made on returning the missing and slain Israelis thought to be held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Israel’s coordinator of government activities in the territories said on Thursday.

Adalah – the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel and the Gaza-based Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, responded by petitioning the High Court of Justice to allow rescue teams in Gaza to search for five missing Hamas members in the attack tunnels destroyed by Israel in the 300-meter stretch approaching the Israeli border.

The lawsuit was filed against against the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories and the Southern Area Commander.

Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai was responding to an earlier request by Adalah and Al Mezan to let Palestinian rescue crews search for the five Palestinians who are still missing. The tunnel was destroyed inside Israeli territory. The explosion is known to have killed five members of Islamic Jihad and two Hamas operatives.

According to the original request, Palestinian rescue crews have so far recovered seven bodies and evacuated 18 people wounded in the blast, but five people are still missing. Copies of the request were sent to Mordechai, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit and Military Advocate General Sharon Afek.

The organizations said the Palestinian rescue crews had to stop their search in the rubble of the tunnel when they got to within 300 meters of the border fence, because Israel has declared that area as a buffer zone and doesn’t allow Palestinians to enter it without permission.

The request stressed that this area is still within Gaza, and Israel should therefore allow the rescuers to enter it.

“As of today, all requests to Israeli army officials by members of the [Palestinian] Civil Defense and the Red Cross to allow their entry as far as the border to find and rescue the missing have been in vain,” attorney Muna Haddad of Adalah wrote in the request. “Preventing the search for and rescue of missing people in an area currently controlled by the Israeli army is a patently illegal policy that violates both Israeli law and international law. It also violates the laws of war and the principles of humanitarian law, which are enshrined in the Geneva Convention.”

Attorney Mouna Haddad of Adalah asserted in the petition to the court that an urgent hearing should be held, as the lives of the missing are at stake. “The court has consistently allowed hearings on urgent matters, sometimes within 24 hours, when saving lives were the issue, even during military operations,” Haddad stated.

Earlier in the day, the Red Cross had asked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to let the rescue crews continue searching the tunnel.

But the family of Lt. Hadar Goldin, whose body has been reportedly held by Hamas ever since he was killed in the Hamas-Israel war in Gaza three years ago, urged Netanyahu to reject the request. It said Israel should offer assistance in finding the missing only if Hamas returned Goldin’s body and that of Oron Shaul, the other slain soldier whose body Hamas has held since that war.

Hamas is also thought to be holding two Israeli civilians who crossed into Gaza of their own volition.

“Any Israeli humanitarian gesture toward Hamas must be conditioned on bringing the boys home,” the Goldin family said in its statement. “For the Israeli government to accede to Hamas would constitute moral injustice and political weakness. It’s inconceivable that the government should continue acceding to Hamas’ humanitarian whims at a time when it is holding Israel Defense Forces soldiers.”

The Shaul family, which hasn’t given up hope that Oron is alive even though the army has declared him dead, issued a similar statement. “We hope the Israeli government won’t dare accede to Hamas’ request as long as they don’t return Oron,” it said. “Oron was kidnapped into a tunnel Hamas members dug and has been held by them for more than three years, during which they have not allowed Red Cross personnel to determine what his condition is.”