Palestinians, Israelis at odds over a new issue: Remains
By WILLIAM BOOTH, RUTH EGLASH | The Washington Post | Published: November 25, 2016
JERUSALEM — It has been more than two years since Hadar Goldin disappeared down a dark hole.
The young Israeli lieutenant was last seen being dragged into a Hamas tunnel during the 2014 Gaza war. Bits of his equipment were recovered, stained with blood and tissue - enough evidence for forensic pathologists and army rabbis to declare him killed in action.
But Goldin's body is still being held by Hamas, the Islamist militant movement that controls the Gaza Strip.
His mother, Leah Goldin, said, "We have no way to come to an end of our mourning until we bring him home."
It is a terrible thing to have nothing to bury, and in this the Goldin family is not alone. The corpse of a second Israeli soldier, Staff Sgt. Oron Shaul, also is being held by Hamas.
Israelis consider the Hamas practice of hoarding bodies to be barbaric.
But the reality is more complicated.
Both sides are withholding bodies.
Israel has not returned the remains of 19 Hamas fighters killed during the 2014 war.
And Israel now routinely holds the bodies of Palestinian assailants who have been shot dead while attacking or threatening Israelis during a year-long wave of violence in Israel and the West Bank.
According to the Palestinian Prisoners Society in Ramallah, which tracks the cases, Israel withheld more than 130 bodies over the past year, for periods of days to weeks to months. The remains of more than 20 Palestinian assailants are still being stored in freezers in Israeli morgues. One corpse has been held for six months.
Saeb Erekat, secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization, charged that Israel's new practice of "postmortem detention" is designed to extend its control of Palestinians "to the intimate terrain of death."
Israeli officials say they withhold the bodies to fight terrorism.
Both sides accuse the other of using bodies as bargaining chips. Both decry the practice as inhumane and a violation of international law.
Hamas holds on to the bodies of Israeli soldiers in hopes of forcing Israel to release hundreds of Hamas prisoners.
Israeli officials say they hold on to bodies to deter future attacks or to deny Palestinians the flag-waving funerals that glorify their martyred heroes and incite their public.
In both cases, a macabre reality remains: Families cannot bury their dead.
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Last month, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman told the Palestinian newspaper al-Quds that Israel is willing to help rebuild the besieged and impoverished Gaza Strip - even construct an airport and seaport - if Hamas stops digging attack tunnels and firing rockets at Israeli civilians.
Lieberman, who is promoting a recycled "carrots and sticks" approach to the Palestinians, did not mention the missing Israeli soldiers.
Supporters of the families of the missing soldiers lashed out, saying that they have been forgotten - that the sacred vow by the Jewish state to bring home all of its soldiers, dead or alive, has been broken.
The Goldin family, especially, has been pressing the Israeli government to take a much harder stance against Hamas and the Palestinians.
They accused Lieberman of having "grown soft" in his new post. The bellicose leader who once threatened to give Hamas 48 hours "to hand over the bodies is now talking about turning Gaza into Singapore," the family said.
The Goldins want Israel to restrict anything but the bare essentials from entering the Gaza Strip. They are calling on Israel to withhold the bodies of Palestinian attackers killed in Jerusalem and the West Bank until their son's remains are returned.
But negotiations with Hamas appear to have collapsed.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's special envoy on hostages and missing persons, Lior Lotan, revealed in September that Israel offered Hamas a deal: In exchange for the bodies of the two Israeli soldiers, Israel would return the remains of 19 Hamas fighters, plus 18 Palestinian militants taken into custody during the war.
Lotan said Hamas rejected the offer.
Hamas officials declined to discuss the matter with The Washington Post. But a spokesman for the group's military wing recently warned that Israel must "pay a high price" for any information "about the destiny" of its missing soldiers and at least two Israeli civilians being held by Hamas. These two - Avraham Mengistu and Juma Ibrahim Abu Anima - walked into the Gaza Strip on their own. Their families say they suffer from severe psychological problems.
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Hamas, which seized control of Gaza in 2007 after winning elections a year earlier, is considered a terrorist organization by both Israel and the United States. Its hard bargaining over captives and remains appears based on past success.
In 2011, Netanyahu approved the release of 1,027 Hamas militants from Israeli jails, including 280 convicted of the multiple killings of Israeli civilians, in exchange for a single Israeli corporal named Gilad Shalit, who was captured in a cross-border raid along the Gaza fence five years earlier.
Hamas knows the issue of returning soldiers is one of the most wrenching in Israel. Although Israelis celebrated Shalit's release, many have since soured on the deal, saying it showed weakness and encouraged Hamas to try to abduct more Israeli soldiers. Hamas considers the capture of one Israeli soldier, or even a soldier's corpse, a great victory.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan this week appeared to support the Hamas strategy. Asked by Israel's Channel 2 about the remains of the two soldiers, Erdogan answered that Israel holds "thousands" of Palestinian prisoners and proposed an exchange.
Leah Goldin, the mother of the missing soldier, told The Washington Post, "For the first year we kept quiet. They told us, 'You'll get the body back.' All the officials were telling us, 'You are in our hearts. We will never forget you.' "
She said: "But there is now what I call the Gilad Shalit syndrome. Everyone asks, what will be the price for his return? That is always the question. It is a symptom of living under terror that we ask what is the price."
Since the soldiers disappeared, Hamas-affiliated media have taunted Israel, suggesting that its soldiers might not be dead.
Herzl Shaul, the father of Oron Shaul, who was killed during the 2014 war and whose corpse is being held by Hamas, never got the chance to bury his son. The elder Shaul died of cancer in September.
He left a note - in case his boy came back.
"I cannot give up because I want to make it to the moment I have been dreaming of since the day you were taken, the moment when the prime minister and the army chief of staff call me and say: 'Herzl, Sergeant Oron Shaul of the Golani Brigade is coming home from the war tonight,' " the father wrote in a letter published posthumously.
"Even though you may be wounded and exhausted, a captive with a long rehabilitation process ahead of you, you will be home," the father said. "This movie keeps running through my head and keeps me strong."
Said Chemi Goldin, the older brother of slain soldier Hadar: "Returning soldiers for burial is a universal human value, in every religion, since the Greeks, since ancient times."
But in Gaza, even the families of slain Hamas fighters whose bodies are believed to be held by Israel, say their sacrifice should be rewarded.
"The Israeli offer is too small, even humiliating. I don't think as a family we will accept it," said Abdul Kareem Madhoun, brother of Salam Madhoun, one of the Hamas fighters killed in the 2014 war, whose body is believed held by the Israelis.
"We want the deal to be like the Shalit deal," he said. "We can't put our personal interests above others and forget about the thousands of people who are in the jail."
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Among Israelis, the practice of withholding corpses is controversial.
This week, residents of Jewish settlements south of Jerusalem called on authorities to return the body of a 15-year-old Palestinian to his family.
Khaled al-Bahar was shot dead by Israeli forces for throwing rocks at soldiers. A military investigation concluded that the soldiers were not in danger, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
"As people of faith, we cannot accept the security forces holding onto the body," settlers wrote in a letter. The Israeli petitioners, including several rabbis, said the practice was "a violation of the dead" that only raised tensions and hurt ties between Jews and Muslims in the area.
Among the bodies still held in an Israeli morgue is that of Abdel Hamid Abu Srour, 19, who came from a well-to-do Bethlehem family that praised him as a "hero" after a bomb he was carrying exploded between his legs as he sat on a Jerusalem bus in April. A dozen Israelis were injured in the blast, including a young girl who suffered severe burns.
"I raised my child. He was a grown man. But my duty has not ended - until I recover his body and bury him," said Srour's mother, Azhar. "Every day we wait. This is not normal. It is my right to have the body. He is still my son. I will not give him up."
Mohammed Mahmoud, a Palestinian lawyer who has petitioned to have bodies returned, called the new Israeli policy "an act of vengeance" with no proof it reduces tensions or attacks - in fact, just the opposite could be true, he said.
"The bodies should be returned to the families," he said, "because obviously the families are the innocent ones."
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Sufian Taha in Ramallah and Hazem Balousha in Gaza City contributed to this report.