Encountering Peace: Bring our citizens home

Two Israeli citizens, presumed to be alive, Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, have been in Hamas captivity for more than four years.

BRING OUR citizens back from Gaza (photo credit: REUTERS)
BRING OUR citizens back from Gaza
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It has been five and a half years since Operation Protective Edge, the Gaza war of 2014, and the falling of two Israeli soldiers, Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, whose bodies are being held captive by Hamas. Two other Israeli citizens, presumed to be alive, Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, have been in Hamas captivity for more than four years. Gilad Shalit was held by Hamas for five years and four months before a deal was made between the Government of Israel and Hamas for his release.
As someone who was directly involved in the secret negotiations for the release of Shalit from day six (July 1, 2006) after his abduction from an army base near the Kerem Shalom crossing, the past five years have been like watching the same movie twice. I understand the deep pain of the Goldin and Shaul families and their desire to bury their sons in Israel, but in all honesty, my sympathies lie much more with the families of Mengistu and al-Sayed, whose sons are presumed to be alive. Nonetheless, it is the duty of the Israeli government to return all four of them to their homes as soon as possible (which should have been several years ago).
The Goldin family believes that the only way to bring the boys home is to apply more pressure on Hamas. That is a reasonable statement. The problem is that no one really seems to know how to do that. Israel has engaged in wide collective punishment of the two million people in Gaza since the election of Hamas in 2006. It doesn’t seem to have produced the desired results of an uprising against Hamas. Preventing visits by families of Hamas prisoners hasn’t changed anything. Removing all privileges from Hamas prisoners hasn’t had any impact. Tightening the noose on the closure of Gaza has only led to repeated rounds of rocket fire from Gaza.
Arresting more than 300 Hamas activists in the West Bank in 2014 – immediately following the kidnapping and murdering of Naftali Frenkel, Gilad Shaer, and Eyal Yifra, including some 68 of them who were released in the Shalit exchange in 2011 – also had no impact on bringing them home. Hundreds of Hamas activists in the West Bank have been arrested since, both by Israel and by the Palestinian Authority. Some 45 of the prisoners released in the Shalit deal are still being held by Israel since their rearrest in 2014. Only a handful of them had returned to terrorist-related activities, including one murderer.
Hamas’s position on negotiations for a new deal with Israel have been clear and stated from the very first contacts after the summer of 2014: Release what they call the “ex-prisoners” (those released in the Shalit deal and rearrested in June 2014) before any new negotiations take place. Hamas states that Israel violated the agreement of the Shalit deal by rearresting those people. Hamas has said that those ex-prisoners who violated their terms of release, meaning that they will not return to terrorism, do not need to be released, but all others must be released before beginning to negotiate a new deal.
ISRAEL’S POSITION is that all of the ex-prisoners are criminals and terrorists, and although most of them could be released in a new deal, they will not be released as a down payment or as a card to be played in order to negotiate. Both sides have legitimate claims to make regarding their positions. Both sides believe that they are right, and no progress has been made in five years in ending this saga, with families suffering huge pain on both sides, and no progress in sight.
Hamas has been informed by third parties, such as Egypt, that Israel will not fully implement any ceasefire understandings as long as Israeli citizens remain in captivity in Gaza. Hamas continues to inform Israel that they will not accept the continued economic blockade of Gaza. This is a clear deadlock. From my own personal experiences in negotiating between Israel and Hamas, I do not believe that Hamas will change its position.
There are more than 40 Hamas prisoners sitting in prison for the second time since 2014 who have been told that in a new deal they could be released, and yet they all defer to the leadership in Gaza rather than applying pressure on the leadership to advance their release as part of a new deal. I wish I was wrong, but it seems to me that they only way to open the negotiations on the bodies of the two Israeli soldiers and the living two Israeli civilians will be to first release the 40 ex-prisoners. I know that this is painful and seen as totally unjust from Israeli eyes, but I also think it is unavoidable.
In any new deal, there will be additional Palestinian prisoners released. I don’t believe that it will be possible to bring the bodies of the soldiers and the two living citizens back to Israel without releasing more prisoners. Hamas knows very well that there will not be another deal in the order of the Shalit deal in which more than 400 Palestinians who killed Israelis were released. The range of possibilities probably includes only prisoners who will be categorized as humanitarian cases – minors, women and sick prisoners, and their number will be rather small and limited.
But negotiations haven’t even begin because Hamas will not forgo its precondition of releasing the ex-prisoners. I suspect that Hamas may not be interested in any deal because it has promised to release thousands of prisoners, and that will not happen. But we won’t really know until there is an understanding on the fate of the ex-prisoners.
Therefore, despite the difficulty, I propose that Israel release the remaining ex-prisoners, with the exception of those who broke the terms of their parole, and then perhaps the real negotiations will get underway.
The writer is a political and social entrepreneur who has dedicated his life to the State of Israel and to peace between Israel and her neighbors. His latest book, In Pursuit of Peace in Israel and Palestine, was published by Vanderbilt University Press.