Encountering Peace: Israel must bring them home

Let’s also begin talking about the freedom and liberation of those Israelis held against their will in Gaza.

PALESTINIANS WALK near the Israel-Gaza border inside Gaza, where Hamas still holds Israeli citizens. (photo credit: REUTERS)
PALESTINIANS WALK near the Israel-Gaza border inside Gaza, where Hamas still holds Israeli citizens.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
For 950 days, an Israeli citizen has been held captive by Hamas in Gaza. During his first 10 months in captivity, there was a court-ordered media blackout regarding his very existence. Another Israeli citizen has been held three months longer than that, and a third Israeli citizen has been in Hamas captivity since July 2016.
Hisham Abu Sayed and Juma’a Ibrahim Abu Janima are Beduin from the village of Hura in the Negev. Abera Mengistu is of Ethiopian descent from Ashkelon. All three of these Israeli citizens somehow managed to cross the hermetically sealed border between Israel and Gaza on their own. All three suffer from mental illness. Nothing is known about their well-being since they crossed over into Hamas-controlled territory. They have not received any visits from the International Committee of the Red Cross, nor have they been allowed any contact with their families or anyone from the outside world. Israel does not even know if they are alive let alone what Hamas is demanding for their safe release.
Three Israeli citizens are being held hostage in Gaza right now and the Israeli public has, for the most part, not even heard about them. No Israeli ministers visit their families, and the prime minister has not even spoken with their families. The government is responsible for bringing them home; it was the failure of the IDF that enabled them to cross the border into Gaza in the first place.
There was a video clip shown (which can no longer be found on the Internet) of Abera Mengistu at the border fence, appearing indecisive about climbing the fence and crossing into Gaza. He lingers near the fence, looks around, sees an IDF patrol nearby, climbs over and walks slowly toward a Hamas-held position. All along, the patrol watches from its jeep without moving to stop him, or even shoot at him.
What were they thinking? If a suspicious white person approaches the border fence or touches it, signals are set off and within minutes, army patrols arrive to prevent any crossing.
Mengisto crossed without any intervention whatsoever.
Abu Sayed is reported to have crossed into Gaza on two previous occasions but was returned to Israel by Hamas border police. On his third crossing he was not returned. Little is known about the circumstances of the crossing into Gaza by Abu Janima.
Along with the three presumed alive Israeli citizens are the bodies of two Israeli soldiers: Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul. Everyone in Israel knows their names and has seen their families in meetings with government ministers, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and senior IDF officers.
These five Israeli families are suffering from the fallout of the last prisoner exchange between Israel and Hamas authorized by the government of Israel under Netanyahu.
Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit held in captivity in Gaza for five years and four months was exchanged for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, more than 400 of whom were serving life sentences for killing Israelis.
Despite the heavy price, 26 members of the government voted for the deal against three who opposed, after hearing support for the deal from the prime minister, the defense minister, the IDF chief of staff, the head of the Mossad, the head of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and the chief of police, as well as some 80% of the Israeli public, who also supported the Schalit deal.
Today the situation is different. There is no living solider being held in Gaza, only the bodies of two soldiers. The three citizens are on the lowest rungs of Israel’s socio-political ladder, virtually invisible in the political considerations of the government.
There is no real public pressure to make concessions for their return. Israel has (rightly) expressed publicly that it is willing to exchange bodies for bodies (having taken out of Gaza about 19 bodies of Palestinian combatants during the 2014 Gaza war) in addition to more than 100 other bodies of Palestinian terrorists and suspected terrorists killed by Israel over the past years.
On April 10, Haaretz reported that Israel has no record of where 121 of these bodies are buried. Israel has also demanded that Hamas release the three civilians on a humanitarian basis without any negotiations because they are non-combatants and suffer from mental illness. Israel is correct in that call, and Hamas is in violation of international law and human decency. The idea of negotiating over dead bodies is itself beyond the realm of human decency.
In June 2014, following the murder of three Israeli teens from Gush Etzion, Israel rounded up hundreds of Hamas supporters in the West Bank. Among those arrested were about 70 who had been released in the Schalit exchange in October 2011. Today, the ex-Schalit deal prisoners number about 45. Since that time, Hamas has demanded that Israel honor its signature and release those prisoners who were rearrested on technical grounds, adding that if any of them return to terrorism and violence that Israel will be justified in re-arresting them, but that all of the others must be released. This has been Hamas’s condition for even beginning to negotiate the release of information about the welfare of those being held or negotiating their release.
My understanding is that only a few of these ex-prisoners have violated the terms of their release by returning to violence. The others are being held as hostages for a future prisoner release. Hamas sees this as a fundamental breach by Israel of a signed agreement and sees no reason to enter into new negotiations until Israel makes good on the past deal. Hamas is, of course, no angel and is a bitter enemy working for Israel’s destruction. But Hamas also demonstrates a high degree of pragmatism in its “relationship” with Israel. Hamas has kept to the cease-fire agreement with Israel after the 2014 war.
I don’t foresee a deal with Hamas for the release of the three Israeli citizens and the bodies of the two soldiers without a release of the ex-prisoners who have not resumed violence. A future deal will also feature additional elements, including the bodies and combatants taken out of Gaza in 2014.
The deal may also include humanitarian elements, such as releasing sick and elderly Palestinian prisoners, those who have served more than 30 years, minors and women. It will not resemble the Schalit exchange, but there will be concessions made.
The issue of another exchange with Hamas must become part of the public discourse; politicians must hear from citizens. Because the State of Israel does not leave anyone behind, a price must be paid for the citizens’ and soliders’ return. From this Passover, celebrating our freedom and liberation, let’s also begin talking about the freedom and liberation of those Israelis held against their will in Gaza.
The writer is is the founder and co-chairman of Israel Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives, and the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel between Israel and Hamas for the release of Gilad Schalit. www.ipcri.org