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Netanyahu under pressure to repatriate captives held in Gaza

Over the past ten months, Israel's right-wing government has maintained a news blackout about the disappearance of two of its citizens in the Gaza Strip. However, on the first anniversary of Israel's Operation Protective Edge offensive last summer, the lid has been lifted on the situation dramatically. Although we don't know if the two Israelis are dead or being held hostage, from now on their fate will, inescapably, be linked to that of thousands of Palestinians "disappeared" in Israeli jails.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is coming under intense pressure to secure the release of all those missing in Gaza. To describe his task as difficult would be an understatement. After all, he broke the terms of the October 2011 prisoner exchange deal under which Sergeant Gilad Shalit was released by Hamas. As an interlocutor, Netanyahu simply cannot be trusted.

On its part, Hamas has, since the 2014 war, refused to give any information about whether it has any prisoners-of-war or whether it has the remains of dead soldiers, as some Israel sources claim. The movement's tactic, it seems, is to put the onus on Israel so that it comes clean and declares the truth about how many of its personnel are actually missing in Gaza.

Can Hamas secure the release of its prisoners from Israeli jails, as it did in the Shalit deal? Israeli commentators doubt this. They point out that the circumstances today are different. Besides, they say that the specific case of the Ethiopian-born soldier Abraha Mengistu and the other missing Israeli is also different because both individuals had "psychological problems" and strayed "innocently" into Gaza.

By releasing some senior Hamas leaders in the past two weeks Israel is clearly sending a signal to the resistance movement that it is finally ready to do a deal. For all its worth, the release of the Hamas parliamentarians hardly seems enough. Hamas officials insist that there will be no information of any kind given out before Israel releases all of the prisoners who were freed as part of the Shalit deal and then rearrested immediately by the occupation authorities.

Under the terms of the Shalit exchange deal with Hamas, 1,027 Palestinian prisoners were freed. Since then, the Netanyahu government has rearrested 70 of the former prisoners; among them there are 34 whose sentences, including life, have been reinstated.

It took five years to do a deal for Shalit's release. As it stands, the Israeli prime minister will not have the luxury of five years to secure the release of the current captives. Empty promises will not suffice. There is already growing discontent and unrest among Israel's large Ethiopian Jewish community. They accuse the Israeli establishment of systemic racial discrimination that relegates them to the status of second class citizens. So, to the same degree that the Israeli media mobilised international support for the French Jewish captive Shalit, they must now act and be seen to be doing something for the captured Ethiopian, Mengistu.

Not for the first time in his longstanding confrontations with Hamas, Netanyahu has found himself cornered. He was vilified by his right-wing allies for agreeing to the Shalit deal. They orchestrated the subsequent passage of a law to prevent any similar agreements in future. Even if the prime minister wants to help the Ethiopian community, his hands are effectively tied by the extremist elements in his own government.

Despite their usual threats that Hamas will be held responsible for the missing Israelis, both Defence Minister Moshe Yallon and Netanyahu are aware that there can be no military solution to the issue. At the end of the day, they will have to negotiate a political deal, however bitter and humiliating it might be.

The trouble is, no one knows for sure how many captives are held in Gaza and who is holding them. The presumption is that they are in the hands of Hamas, but that has not been confirmed. As far as the movement is concerned there will be no free information. Abu Obaydah, the spokesman for the Ezzedine Al-Qassam Brigades, did not give much away this week when he spoke at a ceremony to mark the anniversary of the war. "Friends and foes should know that the files arising from [Operation Protective Edge] and their requirements are still open," he explained. "At the top of them is the prisoners' dossier."

The guns which blasted across Gaza last summer may have been silenced but another battle-front has opened up between the occupying power and the resistance. The stakes are equally high. To the same degree that Netanyahu's credibility is being tested, so too is Hamas called upon to deliver on its solemn undertaking to secure the freedom of thousands of prisoners. Whether it takes another five years, as was the case with Shalit, is hardly relevant. What matters is the fact that Israel has finally announced that it has missing personnel in Gaza. That in itself gives hope to thousands of Palestinian families that their fathers, sons and brothers may have a future.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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