Israel uses fighters trapped in Gaza tunnel as “bargaining chips”

The body of Muhammad Marwan al-Agha, a Hamas naval commando, is taken to a hospital after he was killed on a tunnel demolition on 30 October.

Yasser Qudih APA images

The military wing of Islamic Jihad announced on Friday that the bodies of five of its fighters missing in a tunnel along the Gaza-Israel boundary that had been detonated by Israel on Monday had died.

The men were identified as Badr Kamal Musbih, Hasan al-Sabakhi, Shadi Sami al-Hamri, Muhammad Khayr al-Din al-Buheisi and Alaa Sami Abu Ghrab:

Human rights groups had called on Israel’s high court to allow Palestinian rescue workers to recover them.

A total of twelve Palestinians died as a result of the blast on Monday.

According to the Ma’an News Agency, “After the first explosion, which buried the five Islamic Jihad fighters, several other fighters from the Islamic Jihad and Hamas movements entered the tunnels on a rescue mission. A second explosion then killed seven of the rescue fighters, and injured at least twelve more.”

Israel had conditioned the recovery of the missing fighters on Hamas releasing information about Israelis being held in Gaza.

Yoav Mordechai, the head of COGAT, the bureaucratic arm of Israel’s military occupation, stated that Israel “will not allow for locating the terrorists in the tunnel without progress on the issue of missing and captive Israelis.”

“Blatantly illegal policy”

The brother of one of two Israeli soldiers whose bodies are believed to be held by Hamas told Israeli media on Thursday that “This is the opportunity we have been waiting for.”

The families of both soldiers missing in Gaza have called on Israel to reject requests to assist in the recovery of the missing Palestinian fighters unless Israel transfers the bodies of the soldiers.

Palestinian rescue workers are unable to access the persons missing in the tunnel collapse because Israel imposes a no-go zone along the Gaza side of boundary fence, firing on anyone who enters it.

Muna Haddad, an attorney with the human rights group Adalah, stated in a petition to the high court that “rescue teams managed to come within 300 meters of the border fence but are unable to reach the trapped and missing persons.”

Haddad said that Israel’s prevention of the “location and rescue of missing persons in the area currently under Israeli military control is a blatantly illegal policy,” calling it “contrary to the laws of war and humanitarian law which are anchored in the Geneva Conventions.”

Adalah and Al Mezan, another human rights group, accused Mordechai and Eyal Zamir, the Israeli military’s southern command chief, of “using the trapped Gazans as bargaining chips.”

Earlier this week the rights groups condemned Zamir for warning members of a Palestinian family via Facebook that they risked death by staying in their home because the Israeli army claimed it had discovered a tunnel built beneath it.

Israelis held in Gaza

Human Rights Watch believes that Hamas’ military wing, the Qassam Brigades, is holding two Israeli civilians with serious mental health conditions who crossed into Gaza in 2014 and 2015.

Hamas authorities have indirectly acknowledged in media statements holding the two men, but say they will divulge nothing about them – not even to confirm their detention – until Israel frees a group of detained Hamas members,” Human Rights Watch stated earlier this year.

“Hamas officials in Gaza have stated, including to Human Rights Watch in September 2016, that they would divulge nothing about the missing Israelis until Israel releases the 54 Hamas members whom Israel had re-arrested in the West Bank in June 2014, after freeing them as part of the deal to release the former prisoner Gilad Shalit three years earlier.”

Hamas, which lost two fighters in the tunnel collapse on Monday, has exercised restraint in the wake of the Israeli operation that also killed five members of Islamic Jihad, including its commander in central Gaza.

Hamas appears determined to see through the implementation of a national reconciliation agreement between it and the Western-backed Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

The PA took control of the Palestinian side of Gaza’s border crossings on Wednesday as part of a broader transfer of civilian rule in the territory from Hamas.

The reconciliation deal remains fragile. Hamas insists on keeping its arms while Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the PA, along with the US and Israel, demand that they be given up.

Abbas has said that the PA’s “security coordination” with Israel is “sacred” and would continue even if the PA forms a government backed by Hamas.

The PA security commander Majed Faraj, along with COGAT’s Yoav Mordechai, met with Palestinian Authority prime minister Rami Hamdallah and Israel’s finance minister in Ramallah on Sunday.

This story was corrected to reflect that the bodies of five fighters had not been recovered from the tunnel as previously reported.


Maureen Clare Murphy

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Maureen Clare Murphy is senior editor of The Electronic Intifada.