Exclusive: Red Cross chief vows to stay engaged with Hamas on Israeli captives
Yuri Kadobnov (AFP)
The families have a right to know. That's what's driving Dr. Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), in his talks with Hamas to secure the exchange of three Israeli citizens being held by the terrorist group in the Gaza Strip, along with the bodies of two deceased Israeli soldiers.
Maurer visited Israel and the Palestinian territories last week, and among the highest priorities on his agenda was orchestrating the release of Avera Mengistu, who crossed into Gaza in 2014, two Bedouin-Israelis Hisham Al Sayeed and Jumaa Abu Ghanima, and the bodies of Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin who were killed in the 2014 conflict with Hamas.
"We know that these are complicated issues, but my main message is we are hopeful we will continue to engage because it's a basic right of families to know the whereabouts of their loved ones and we will continue to engage with all sides," Maurer told i24NEWS in an interview.
But Hamas views the releases of Israelis -- dead or alive -- as bargaining chips, which have resulted in the prior exchange of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners convicted of deadly violence against Israelis.
Since IDF soldier Gilad Shalit was released in 2011 in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, senior government ministers have cooled on the idea of prisoner swaps. So, will the talks between Maurer and Hamas bear fruit?
"Well we certainly hope so, and hope is often all that keeps us going and keeps us insisting when the lives of people are at stake and this is certainly the case,” Maurer said. "I think there is an interest to talk, maybe an interest to negotiate directly or indirectly with the Israeli government and I think there is a willingness to engage with the ICRC, which goes beyond lip service."
Maurer stressed that the ICRC's longstanding humanitarian work in the Gaza Strip gives it credibility with the leadership there that other organizations may not have.
"We are doing humanitarian work in the Strip, so that people can lead dignified lives, civilians can lead dignified lives, and this needs a level of cooperation and agreement with the authorities in Gaza,” explained Maurer. “So, we do have cooperation. I made it very clear and we want to see that we can enlarge the cooperation with the authorities in order to bring better results to the families [of missing Israelis]."
During Maurer's visit to the coastal enclave, however, his request to visit the captives was rejected, with Hamas saying that they wouldn't release any information about their well-being without getting something in return.
In July, Sha'aban Al-Sayeed, the father of Hisham, told i24NEWS that Israel should not negotiate a prisoner exchange to free his son -- who, like the two others, was in a state of poor mental health when he crossed into the Strip -- but demanded that Hamas release him unilaterally.
Relationship with Israel
It seems Maurer has the respect of the Israeli government, as well. This is a rarity for an international NGO.
Israel’s relationships with such organizations have largely been strained due to real or perceived biases. But, Netanyahu said recently that the Red Cross has been fair and open in its dealings with Israel.
“Well, I appreciate a lot [Netanyahu’s] statement because I think it reflects a genuine effort by the ICRC to have a balanced, non-political and impartial approach in conflict,” said Maurer.
“I think while we many not always agree on everything, it also reflects that we have excellent cooperation with Israel, that we have a positive dynamic in our exchanges with the Israeli armed forces, with the COGAT (Coordinator of Government Activity in the Territories), with different authorities responsible for the West Bank and so it reflects a positive dynamic of work that we are in with Israel.
"There are areas where we have different perspectives but I think that's happening in good families and I think the humanitarian family to which Israel belongs is one of those families," he said.
But, it’s those grieving and burdened families that Maurer seems most interested in helping, and he says efforts to free those being held in Gaza will continue in full force.
Mike Wagenheim is a diplomatic correspondent for i24NEWS
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