Forgotten Israeli Hostages

A lot is going on in the world right now; nevertheless, it is no excuse to ignore that Hamas has been holding the remains of Israeli soldiers Hadar Goldin (23) and Oron Shaul (20) since 2014 in addition to two men with serious mental health conditions – Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed – who wandered into the Gaza Strip in 2014 and 2015. These men have been forgotten, at least outside Israel, and it is time for a worldwide campaign for their immediate release.

On a scale of depravity on which Hamas is already near the top, the withholding of corpses from their families is especially heinous. The terrorists have tortured the other families by refusing to offer a sign of life for their captives.

Hopes were raised in the last few months as Israel was reportedly quietly negotiating a long-term ceasefire with Hamas. The two sides, however, have different expectations regarding the captives. Israel wants their release to be part of any agreement while Hamas does not.

Israel has not been willing to threaten any use of force against Hamas if it does not turn over the Israelis most likely out of concern those who are alive will be killed. Israel is also reluctant to make a trade for Palestinian prisoners for fear that this will encourage terrorists to kidnap more Israelis. That red line, however, was crossed long ago.

Even though the government refuses to officially negotiate with terrorists, it has on several occasions engaged in indirect talks to bring back its kidnapped soldiers. Israel has exchanged prisoners with both Arab nations and terrorist groups, sometimes releasing thousands of prisoners, including those with blood on their hands, in exchange for a few soldiers.

In past wars Israel and its enemies exchanged prisoners of war. I believe the first instance where Israel traded terrorists from Israeli jails for soldiers was in 1975 when Egypt returned the bodies of 39 Israeli soldiers killed in action during the Yom Kippur War in exchange for 92 terrorists and security prisoners. In 1985, Israel released 1,150 terrorists to gain the return of three soldiers.

Hamas is also not the first terrorist group to hold the bodies of Israeli soldiers hostage. In 2008, Israel exchanged five terrorists, including Sami Kuntar, who had been jailed for his role in the deaths of four Israelis, including a 4-year-old girl and her father, to retrieve the bodies of two soldiers held by Hezbollah.

Most recently, in 2011, Israel gained the release of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit after five years in Hamas captivity. The cost was 1,027 Palestinian prisoners. Many later carried out terror attacks against Israeli soldiers and civilians and some were rearrested.

Later, in 2014, the Knesset acted to discourage future exchanges. A law was passed prohibiting the release of certain Palestinian prisoners. In the past, Israel released Palestinians by cutting their sentences short. Under this law, a Palestinian incarcerated for life cannot be considered for an exchange until they have served at least 15 years of their sentence.

Regardless of the law and whether Israel agrees to a trade now, the Palestinians have placed a high priority on trying to kidnap soldiers in the belief they are valuable bargaining chips. The terrorists are patient and content to hold their captives as long as necessary to get their fellow terrorists out of jail. Among their recent demands are the release of elderly and sick prisoners, women and minors, and anyone who was freed in the Shalit deal and later rearrested.

The families of those currently held are understandably impatient, frustrated, and angry. In April, the Goldin family released a statement saying that “missing this opportunity now would be a national irresponsibility.”

No one in Israel wants to abandon their fellow citizens and Israelis are well aware of the costs, which most have expressed a willingness to pay. For example, in 2011, 69% of the Israeli public supported the swap for Shalit and 78% said afterward it was the right decision.

Still, the Israeli government has very difficult decisions to make. Is a trade worth incentivizing kidnapping? How many prisoners is an Israeli life or body worth? How many more Israelis will be killed or injured by terrorists who are released?

World leaders and the feckless UN could make the Israeli decision easier by demanding the immediate, unconditional release of the hostages. It is in the interests of Western leaders, especially, whose own citizens could one day be in the same situation where they would face a similar dilemma.

Meanwhile, despite everything else that has our attention, we cannot forget about Hadar Goldin, Oron Shaul, Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed or rest until they are released.

About the Author
Dr Mitchell Bard is the Executive Director of the nonprofit American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (AICE) and a foreign policy analyst who lectures frequently on U.S.-Middle East policy. Dr. Bard is the director of the Jewish Virtual Library, the world's most comprehensive online encyclopedia of Jewish history and culture. He is also the author/editor of 24 books, including The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews and the novel After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.
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