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Why Hamas refused to return IDF remains

Hamas' release of two Israeli civilians and the remains of two soldiers was never on the table as a condition of the Israeli-Turkish reconciliation agreement.
Hamas leader Yehia Sinwar attends a rally in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip January 7, 2016. The rally, organized by Hamas movement, was held to honor the families of dead Hamas militants, who Hamas's armed wing said participated in imprisoning Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, organizers said. Shalt was abducted by militants in a cross-border raid in 2006, and was released in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinians held in Israeli jails. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem  - RTX21FPI

The reconciliation agreement signed June 27 between Israel and Turkey did not bring about the return of the bodies of two Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers, Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, killed in 2014, or the release of two Israeli civilians held by Hamas, Avraham Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed. The agreement did not contribute even one additional piece of information beyond what was already known to Israel’s defense establishment about the condition of Mengistu and Sayed, who separately crossed the border into Gaza after Operation Protective Edge in 2014 and have since been held by the organization’s military wing as bargaining chips, admittedly weak ones, although Hamas views them as a tool of significant pressure on Israel.

The Goldin and Shaul families say that they were promised over the course of the long negotiations that Israel would condition its signing of the reconciliation agreement on the release of the soldiers’ bodies. These promises were made to the families even though the members of the Security Cabinet who supported the reconciliation agreement, as well as those who opposed it — Ministers Avigdor Liberman, Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked — knew that the chances were virtually nil of linking the release of the soldiers' remains and the civilians to the agreement with Turkey.

Even if Turkey had exerted all its influence on Khaled Meshaal, head of Hamas’ political bureau, it wouldn't have altered the fact that Meshaal no longer has influence over the head of the Hamas military wing, which holds the soldiers' bodies and the two civilians. Nevertheless, all the Cabinet members — including Liberman — who in the past promised to eliminate Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh if he refused when ordered to return the soldiers’ bodies and release the civilians within 48 hours — withheld this information from the families and the public.

Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan, for example, said that it was with a heavy heart that he had voted in favor of the reconciliation agreement. After the Cabinet meeting, he said, “I heard the outcries [of the families]. … I promised them that when I got to the Cabinet, I’d ask the difficult questions before making my decision.”

Erdan knew that the answers to these difficult questions have been in the hands of those sitting around the Cabinet table ever since contacts with Hamas began about two years ago, in 2014. Those contacts were facilitated by the mediation of Egypt, Turkey, the European Union and Tony Blair, special envoy to the Middle East for the Quartet, and also via the communications channel between Hamas leader Ghazi Hamad and Israeli Gershon Baskin that led to the 2011 release of abducted IDF soldier Gilad Shalit. Even two years ago, the conclusion was that there was no one to talk to about the release of the remains.

Hamas’ military wing, under Mohammed al-Deif’s leadership, is the de facto ruling entity in Gaza today. It has the final say in everything. The leaders of the political wing, including Meshaal and Haniyeh, have become mere marionettes. The heads of the military wing do as they wish.

During the negotiations for Shalit's return, the lone Hamas arbiter had been Ahmed Jabari, head of the military wing. Israel killed him about a year after the deal. Today, the military wing is run by a group of decision-makers, a kind of ruling military junta, consisting of Deif, Marwan Issa and Yahya Sinwar.

Sinwar was released to Gaza as part of the Shalit deal, the highest-ranking prisoner to be freed by Israel in that controversial transaction. Muhammad Sinwar, Yahya’s brother and commander of the Khan Yunis area in Gaza, was one of Shalit’s captors. A major condition for the deal was the release of his brother from prison.

Yahya Sinwar, a founder of Hamas’ military wing, was given a life sentence for murder during the first intifada, in 1989. While in prison, he was connected to planning the abduction of soldier Nachshon Wachsman. When the prisoners in the Shalit deal were released to Gaza, a black Mercedes waited for Yahya Sinwar at the gate of the Rafah crossing. Thus he was picked up by Hamas' people as befitting one of the organization’s top brass.

After Sinwar’s release, I spoke to him by phone and tried to convince him to give an interview on Israel’s Channel 10 TV. Sinwar stipulated that the interview be broadcast live, without leaving an opportunity for the “Zionists” (his words) to edit it. The interview never took place.

At a rally in Gaza after his release, Sinwar took the stage and announced, “We will not forget our prisoners who we left behind.” He mentioned by name Hassan Salameh and Mahmoud Issa, among the founders of Hamas' Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades. Sinwar then called on all the armed Palestinian factions to mobilize for the struggle that would bring about the release of their prisoners, which he said were wasting away in Israeli jails.

Sinwar is now viewed as Hamas’ “defense minister.” In July 2015, he was given the job of conducting negotiations for the release of Hamas prisoners in Israel in exchange for the bodies of Goldin and Shaul and Mengistu and Sayed. The feelers and contacts never morphed into real negotiations and became even more convoluted and labyrinthine than the prolonged negotiations conducted for the return of Shalit.

From Sinwar’s point of view, a successful prisoner exchange deal is the key for establishing his stature in the organization. Sinwar views himself as the natural successor to Deif, whose health is failing. Although Israel did not succeed in killing Deif, he suffers from serious injuries. Sinwar knows that a good deal that results in the release of hundreds of Hamas prisoners from Israeli jails — with which he is very familiar — will garner him seniority in the future. As far as Sinwar is concerned, any compromise would be viewed as betrayal of a principle and of the promise not to forget the prisoners.

Thus in effect, the two civilians and the bodies of two soldiers constitute the key to Sinwar’s future success and fulfillment of his promise to his friends “left behind.” The Israeli Cabinet is and was well aware of these details. They were briefed by the heads of Shin Bet and Military Intelligence and knew that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan never held the key to bringing the soldiers’ bodies to eternal rest or releasing the two civilians, even if Israel had been willing to lift the closure imposed on Gaza.