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Israeli president: return of Israeli soldiers 'precondition' for reconstruction of Gaza

July 15, 2017 12:55 P.M. (Updated: July 15, 2017 7:42 P.M.)
Palestinians flee their destroyed neighbourhood on a horse and cart in Gaza's Beit Hanun, on August 18, 2014 (AFP/Thomas Coex, File)
BETHLEHEM (Ma’an) -- In an event marking the third anniversary of the 2014 Israeli offensive in Gaza, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said on Thursday evening that the return of missing Israeli soldiers from Gaza was a “precondition” for rebuilding the besieged coastal enclave, according to Israeli news daily Haaretz.

The 51-day offensive, termed “Operation Protective Edge” by Israeli authorities, resulted in the killings of 1,462 Palestinian civilians, a third of whom were children, according to the United Nations.

At least 142 families lost three or more members in attacks on residential buildings during the Israeli assault, which caused the deaths of 742 civilians, the UN reported in 2015, adding that there were credible allegations that the incidents amounted to war crimes.

“The rebuilding of Gaza requires the return of our sons and the cessation of all hostilities with Israel,” Rivlin said, referring to Israelis being held by Hamas, the de-facto leaders of Gaza.

Avraham Mengistu, an Israeli of Ethiopian descent, has reportedly been held by Hamas since September 2015 when he accidentally wandered into Gaza. Hisham al-Sayed, a young Israeli-Bedouin man who has schizophrenia, was last seen when he crossed into the Palestinian territory in April 2015 and Jumaa Ibrahim Abu Ghneima, whose presence in Gaza is unconfirmed, are also reportedly being held by Hamas.

Hamas also holds the bodies of two Israeli soldiers, Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, who were pronounced dead by Israel during the 2014 war in Gaza, though Hamas has never explicitly said whether the two Israeli soldiers were alive or dead.

“As long as Hamas, a terrorist organization that seeks Israel’s destruction, that does not respect human life, that does not respect human rights, a brutal and murderous organization, runs Gaza – Gaza will not be rehabilitated,” Haaretz quoted Rivlin as saying, who went on to add that “we are not complacent, we know that Protective Edge probably won’t be the last war.”

Rivlin’s comments came days after reports emerged that Hamas and Israel were closer than ever to reaching a prisoner exchange deal, that would be similar to a 2011 deal in which Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was exchanged for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.

Lebanon’s al-Akhbar newspaper reported that Hamas and Egypt were “close to an agreement on conducting the first stage” -- allegedly already greenlit by Israel -- of an exchange within the next three months, with the involvement of Russia, Egypt, and UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov.

Hamas is expected to deliver a video proving that it holds Israeli hostages via an intermediary, after which the exchange will begin to take place.

In return, according to al-Akhbar, Hamas demanded that all the prisoners who were released during the Shalit deal and later redetained be released once again; and that all Palestinian females and minors, in addition to members of the Palestinian Legislative Council, who are currently detained in Israeli prisons be released.

The second stage reportedly will include the release of more Palestinian political prisoners, including Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) Secretary-General Ahmad Saadat and prominent Fatah figure Marwan Barghouthi.

While the scope and details of the alleged agreement have not been confirmed, reports notably made no mention of the return of the bodies of four Hamas-affiliated slain Palestinians whose bodies are being held by Israel, and who have been believed to be included in any talks of a prisoners exchange.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also spoke at the event, saying “our commitment to bring home (the bodies of soldiers) Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin is as strong as ever. We are not relenting in this sacred mission -- including in recent days. The same goes for (civilians) Avera Mengistu and Hisham Asad, Israeli civilians who are being held in the Gaza Strip, by a cruel enemy.”

According to Haaretz, Netanyahu also noted that there “has not been such quiet on the Gaza border since the Six-Day War,” in 1967, and that this relative calm “was achieved thanks to our boys. We continue to bolster our capabilities both defensively and offensively, with the purchase of missile intercept systems, of advanced weaponry, and in many other ways. We will not accept any infringement on our sovereignty. Not in the south, not in the north, not anywhere.”

The Gaza Strip has suffered under an Israeli military blockade since 2007, when Hamas became the de facto ruling party in the territory. Residents of Gaza suffer from high unemployment and poverty rates, as well as the consequences of three devastating wars with Israel since 2008.

The UN has warned that the besieged Palestinian territory could become "uninhabitable" by 2020, as its estimated 2 million residents remain in dire poverty due to the nearly decade-long Israeli blockade and ongoing electricity crisis.

Residents have continued to experience trauma in their daily lives following the 2014 Israeli offensive, as reconstruction efforts have moved at a glacial pace and with tens of thousands of Palestinians still displaced after losing their homes in 2014.

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