hamas lawmakers 298.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
A leading human rights group called Thursday for terrorist groups in Lebanon and Gaza to free IDF soldiers they seized in cross-border raids last summer and for Israel to release Hamas lawmakers rounded up after the abductions.
Palestinian gunmen with links to Hamas tunneled from Gaza into Israel, killed two IDF soldiers and kidnapped tank crewman Cpl. Gilad Schalit, on June 25, 2006. Three weeks later, Lebanese Hizbullah guerrillas crossed Israel's northern border and abducted reservists Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, triggering the 34-day Second Lebanon War.
"The groups holding these soldiers hostage must release them immediately," the statement quoted Human Rights Watch Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson as saying.
The statement came a day after a Hamas-linked group freed British journalist Alan Johnston, kidnapped by gunmen from a Gaza City street and held for 16 weeks.
Israel rounded up more than 60 Hamas officials in the wake of Schalit's capture, among them 36 lawmakers, in an operation widely viewed as an effort to collect bargaining chips to force his release. All but a handful are still in custody, although Palestinian officials said that Hatim Qafisheh, a legislator from the Hebron area, was freed on Thursday.
"It was only after Cpl. Schalit's capture that Israel started arresting Hamas legislators and ministers who had participated in Israeli-sanctioned Palestinian elections in January 2006," said Whitson. "Israel's response to hostage-taking should not include arbitrary arrests."
In a report earlier this week, Human Rights Watch said Palestinian rocket attacks on Israeli towns and IDF artillery strikes near populated areas in northern Gaza constituted serious violations of the rules of war and said both sides showed "insufficient regard for civilian life."