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Whoever Holds The Bodies Holds The Cards

November 8, 2017

A terrorist gets out of a tunnel during a graduation ceremony in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on November 4, 2016. (Photo: SAID KHATIB/AFP/Getty Images)
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The Israeli military is holding the remains of five Palestinians killed in tunnel demolition

Israel announced that it is in possession of the bodies of five Islamic Jihad (IJ) operatives who were killed when an underground attack tunnel, leading from the Gaza Strip into Israeli territory, was blown up.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu made clear that his government would not hand over their remains, given that Hamas is holding the bodies of two IDF soldiers killed in Gaza during the 2014 war—Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul—as well as three Israeli civilians who crossed into the Strip on their own accord.

“We intend to return our sons home. There are no free gifts,” the Israeli premier asserted.

In response, Dawood Shihab, an IJ spokesperson, contended to the Media Line that the organization “will not allow Israel to hold the bodies” and vowed to deal with the situation “in a suitable way” that precludes any negotiations.

When reached by The Media Line, Abd Alatef Al-Qnou, a Hamas spokesperson said that his group will not change its policy of withholding the remains of Israeli soldiers. “The enemy [Israel] is delusional if it thinks that it can pressure Hamas,” he declared.

Despite the current posturing by both sides, Israel has a long history of making exchanges with groups it defines as enemies, most notably the precedent-setting so-called Jibril Agreement in 1985. While the Israelis had two years earlier traded more than 4,700 prisoners for six IDF soldiers captured by the Palestine Liberation Organization, most of those set free had been jailed for non-security-related offenses. By contrast, of the 1,150 prisoners swapped for three Israeli soldiers in the subsequent deal, many were notorious murderers who would later go on to form the backbone of Hamas.

The Israeli government has likewise forged deals in the past to recoup the bodies of its deceased fighters. In 2004, Israel released more than 400 Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners, including members of Hizbullah’s leadership, in exchange for one civilian captive, Elhanan Tannenbaum, and the bodies of three IDF soldiers: Adi Avitan, Benny Avraham and Omar Souad.

Four years later, Samir Kuntar, who in 1979 brutally murdered an Israeli family of four and would later go on to become a senior Hizbullah commander—was the centerpiece of an exchange for the bodies of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, the two IDF soldiers seized in the cross-border raid that sparked the 2006 war between Israel and the Shiite Lebanese group (prior to the swap, Israeli intelligence organizations had no concrete information on their status and hoped they would be returned alive).

Israeli political analyst Gad Shimron believes that Israelis are unlikely to be receptive to a prisoner-swap deal with Hamas, following the 2011 agreement which secured the return of captive IDF soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners (including current Hamas chief in Gaza Yahya Sinwar). “It’s shocking to me that Hamas doesn’t want to negotiate, at the same time I’m not certain that the Israelis would agree,” he elaborated to The Media Line.

Shimron urged Hamas to be flexible, especially now that the organization is in a weaker position and is set to transfer administrative control of the Strip over to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Irrespective of current statements by both the Israeli government and Palestinian factions, some analysts believe that a deal to exchange the bodies is a distinct possibility. In fact, Israel has been conducting back-channel talks with Hamas to this effect and Netanyahu last month appointed Yaron Blum to spearhead efforts to reach an accord.

For his part, Khair Alhbty, the father of one of the slain IJ tunnelers, told The Media Line that he will not pressure the group to recover his son’s body. “I will not force my people to sacrifice,” he asserted, before suggesting that holding dead bodies is a violation of international law.

In this respect, the Al-Mezan Center in Gaza is currently preparing a legal case demanding the return of the remains of the five IJ members. Mervat Al Sahab, the coordinator of the organization’s legal unit revealed to The Media Line that there is “already a case requesting the return of another 10 bodies of Gazans that Israel is holding at present.”

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