Israel has admitted to carrying out operations inside cemetaries in the Gaza Strip over the past month with the goal of finding the remains of two Israeli soldiers captured by Palestinian militants over 8 years ago. The rare acknowledgement by the Israeli military has sparked outrage among Palestinians and accusations that Israel desecrated graves and violated religious norms.
Background on the Missing Israeli Soldiers
In 2014, Israel fought a bloody 51-day war with Palestinian militants in Gaza called Operation Protective Edge. During that conflict, militants from Hamas ambushed a group of Israeli soldiers near the southern Gaza border, killing two soldiers and capturing a third, Lt. Hadar Goldin. His body was never recovered. A second Israeli soldier, Sgt. Oron Shaul, was also declared dead but his body was not retrieved. The two soldiers’ bodies have been held for ransom ever since by Hamas, which rules Gaza. Multiple rounds of Egyptian-brokered talks over exchanges for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel have all broken down.
The families of Shaul and Goldin have pressed Israel to do more to return their sons for burial. Earlier this month, Israel and Hamas engaged in three days of intense cross-border fighting sparked by Israeli arrest raids in the West Bank. As part of that fighting, Hamas claimed to have captured an Israeli soldier. Israel said the claim was untrue but panic erupted among Israelis. It is in this charged context that Israel has apparently stepped up controversial efforts to gain leverage over Hamas to secure the release of Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul’s bodies.
Recent Cemetary Operations in Gaza to Find Remains
On Thursday January 12th, the Israeli military formally acknowledged it has significantly stepped up operations to find the remains of Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul. Though it provided few details, the military confirmed reports by Palestinian witnesses that troops had dug up graves and otherwise disturbed cemetaries in a number of locations in southern Gaza over recent weeks.
The operations began in early December but intensified after the heavy fighting in early January during which Hamas claimed to have captured an Israeli soldier. Bulldozers and other heavy machinery were brought in by Israeli special forces operating covertly inside Gaza near the southern border. Disturbances caused by the digging operations were visible from the Israeli side of the border. Locals reported seeing Israeli drones monitoring the cemetary missions as well.
|Largest disturbance reported, multiple graves excavated over several nights
|Locals accuse Israel of removing bodies from a small cemetery
|Israel admits to operating in a cemetery but says only tunnels were targeted
Palestinian reports have accused Israel of outright removing bodies from cemetaries. Israel denies this and says it did not take any remains from Gaza. However, its mission was clearly to uncover the resting spots of Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul. Israeli defense officials reportedly believe Hamas may have buried the two soldiers’ bodies underneath graves of their own militants as a way to deter Israeli raids.
International Condemnation and Outrage in Gaza
The revelations of Israel desecrating Gaza graves in search of leverage over Hamas has triggered harsh criticism across the Arab world. The operations violate basic religious norms highly valued in Muslim culture regarding respect for the dead. There are also accusations that Israel removed bodies which has fueled rumors of organ theft – allegations Israel vehemently denies.
Hamas released a scathing condemnation of the “brutal and disgraceful” Israeli operations calling it a war crime:
“The desecration and vandalism by the occupation at the cemetery in Khan Younis is a brutal act that crosses all red lines,” said Hamas spokesman Hazim Qassem.
The United Nations’ Middle East envoy Tor Wennesland said:
“The reported exhumation of human remains…would constitute a serious violation of international law.”
Relatives of the dead believe Israel probed graves of their loved ones seeking DNA evidence of the captured soldiers. But disturbing their final resting places is a sacrilege. Ahmad al-Najjar, who lost his 21-year old son 3 years ago said the excavations near his grave “It’s outrageous, an violation of all religious norms, humanitarian values and international laws.”
There’s been widespread calls, including from U.N. officials for an immediate halt to Israel’s grave disturbances. Gaza’s Islamist rulers Hamas have vowed revenge if they continue.
Israel’s Perspective: Actions Driven by Wanting to Return Soldiers for Proper Burial
Israeli officials have tried to defend the military’s cemetary operations as an unfortunate but necessary step to try gaining information that leads to the recovery of Hadar Goldin and Oron Shual’s bodies. The soldiers’ families have stood firmly behind the military’s controversial measures during the painful 8-year ordeal hoping they can properly bury their sons.
Simha Goldin, Hadar’s father, stated:
“Israel has turned over every stone in order to return Hadar home for burial. We’ve always said we support any activity that can bring Hadar back.”
Israel says Hamas is cruelly holding the bodies for ransom as leverage despite the emotional toll it causes the soldiers’ families. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s spokesman claimed Hamas has abandoned all “humanitarian principles” for how the dead should be treated. Other Israeli officials have hinted they may again need to resort to fierce violence if Hamas refuses to return the soldiers’ bodies for burial in Israel.
Previous ceasefire talks over a prisoner swap have all collapsed with both sides rejecting compromise proposals. Israel currently holds several Palestinian militants convicted of orchestrating attacks that killed Israelis. Hamas wants some of those freed in any exchange deal.
Outlook: Controversy Likely to Increase Pressure on Israel-Hamas Deal
The disturbing revelations over Israel’s extraction operations targeting Gaza graves will likely increase international pressure for a deal with Hamas to return the two soldiers’ bodies. However continued Israeli grave disturbances also risk triggering another round of fighting with Palestinian militants.
Hamas will face its own increased pressure to make concessions now that its profane handling of the Israeli soldiers’ corpses has been exposed. However so far Hamas has given no indication of backing down from its steep demands to exchange the soldiers’ remains for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel. Its leaders hid the bodies specifically to retain vital leverage they won’t relinquish cheaply.
If progress remains stalled, Israel may greenlight even more aggressive military action targeting Hamas such as assassinations of leaders or infrastructure bombing. Going further down the violent route however risks triggering another full-on Gaza war and losing more Israeli lives.
For the Goldin and Shaul families, this wrenching saga has already lasted 8 long years. But an end still seems nowhere in sight with both Israel and Hamas digging in their heels. The best hope lies with Egyptian mediators striking the delicate compromise that has eluded all involved parties perpetuating Gaza’s cycle of violence.
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