Netanyahu appoints new negotiator for Israelis captive in Gaza
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday announced the appointment of a new lead negotiator for the return of Israelis and the remains of soldiers held captive by Hamas in the Gaza Strip, after criticism from one of the soldiers' families that the post had been left vacant.
Yaron Blum, a former senior officer in Israel's internal security service, the Shin Bet, will take up the high-profile position, the prime minister's office said in a statement. Blum was part of the inner circle of advisers who negotiated the release of soldier Gilad Shalit from Hamas captivity in 2012.
"I thank the Prime Minister for the trust," Blum -- who is also a fellow at the Institute for the Study of Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya -- said, adding that he "see[s] in the role that has been bestowed on me, a national mission of the first order."
"Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke tonight with the Goldin, Shaul, Al-Sayeed and Mengistu families, updated them on the appointment and emphasized his commitment to bring their sons home," the statement said.
Hamas is believed to be holding captive at least two Israelis, Avraham (Avera) Mengistu and Hisham Al-Sayeed, who entered Hamas-controlled Gaza during periods of poor mental health. A third Israeli, Jumma Abu Ghanima, has not been heard from since he was spotted entering the blockaded enclave in July 2016.
The Islamist group is also holding the bodies of two Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers, Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, who were killed during the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas.
The Mengistu and Goldin families released statements on Saturday night welcoming the decision.
"The government now has an unprecedented opportunity to exert effective pressure on Hamas and to mobilize the international community to reach the best prisoner exchange agreement in years," the Goldin family said.
The former coordinator for the living captives and missing-in-action soldiers, Lior Lotan, quit the post in late August.
Earlier this month the Shaul family threatened to go to the High Court if a replacement for Lotan was not found soon.
“It is inconceivable that for over a month there is no government official to deal solely with the issue of captives and missing persons,” the family reportedly wrote in a letter, “The fact that no new negotiator has been appointed demonstrates the government’s negligence in its conduct toward us and Oron, who still has not returned from the battlefield.”
The four men have reportedly been the discussion of several rounds of negotiations between Hamas and Israeli representatives, brokered by Egypt. Despite a flurry of reports over the summer that the two sides were closing in on a deal, nothing has come to fruition.
Hamas is reportedly demanding that Israel release a batch of Palestinian prisoners before it will even provide information about the Israelis' welfare.
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