Israel-Turkey Deal Marred by Failure to Secure Return of Fallen Soldiers’ Remains

By Genevieve Belmaker | June 29, 2016 | 6:23 PM EDT

Reut Gazi, a cousin of Oron Shaul – an Israeli soldier killed in Gaza in 2014 – campaigns for public support outside the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem on Tuesday. (Photo: Genevieve Belmaker)

Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) – An agreement to normalize ties between Turkey and Israel aims to heal one of the region’s most important relationships, but Israel’s failure to secure the remains of soldiers killed in Gaza as part of the deal has left many unhappy here.

After a four-and-a-half hour debate described by ministers to Israel’s Ha’aretz as “one of the most serious and in depth sessions ever held by the current cabinet,” the security cabinet approved the controversial agreement Wednesday by a 7-3 vote.

Relations between the two countries, already strained, deteriorated sharply in 2010 after Israeli commandos boarded a Turkish-flagged ship trying to break the security blockade of Gaza.  

A bloody battle on the Mavi Marmara ended with the deaths of nine Turkish activists. The ship was operated by a radical Turkish “charity” designated by the U.S. government in 2008 for funding Hamas.

Part of Wednesday’s deal with Turkey includes a $21 million reparations payment.

A major factor in opposition to the vote was rooted in controversy surrounding the return of the remains of two Israeli soldiers killed in the 2014 Israel-Hamas conflict, as well as the return of Israeli citizens Avra Mangisto and Hisham Al-Said, who are being held in Hamas-controlled Gaza.

The return of the soldiers’ remains and release of the two citizens was not included in the deal. Turkey’s Islamist government is one of Hamas’ major supporters, and wields considerable influence with the U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization.

Family members have said publicly over the past week that the Israeli government and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu personally had promised repeatedly and explicitly that they would be included.

Early this week, several family members of the two soldiers, Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, set up a protest tent outside Netanyahu’s official residence. Goldin’s brother, Hemi, said Tuesday it has been two years since Hadar’s death and he wants to bring him home.

“I want a proper burial, as a basic humanitarian right,” he told reporters in Jerusalem. “We are shocked and concerned that promises were not kept.”

Hemi said it was repeatedly made clear over the past two years that return of the bodies would be a pre-condition for any agreement with Turkey. The deal struck, he said, was akin to “giving Hamas a prize.” 

Stickers and banners bearing images of Oron Shaul are displayed at a protest tent outside Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem. (Genevieve Belmaker)

The soldiers’ families view the agreement as a missed opportunity for closure – as well as the possibility of a more damaging deal to secure the remains down the road, such as a swap for Hamas prisoners. The terrorist group has a history of using Israelis, alive and dead, as bargaining chips.

As the deal was signed, Turkey vowed to continue efforts to secure the release of the soldiers’ remains and the two Israelis. But Hemi isn’t convinced.

“A promise that they may help in the future – I don’t think that will hold much,” he said. “Now that we have a chance, why not take it?”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who met last week with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, has agreed under the normalization deal to build a hospital, desalination plant, and other ventures in Gaza. Turkey will also be able to resume shipping goods to the Strip – but through the nearby Israeli port of Ashdod.

In a statement released after the deal was finalized Wednesday, Netanyahu announced plans to “hold a discussion as soon as possible” about the conditions of Hamas operatives jailed in Israel.

The cabinet also plans to form a sub-team to find ways to leverage a deal with Hamas, and to have a policy discussion on the larger issue of MIAs and captives.

Gregg Roman, director of the Middle East Forum and former political advisor to Israel’s deputy foreign minister, laments that there were some lost opportunities in the deal.

“I think you could have turned the screws a little more,” said Roman. “But this is the deal they got and it’s a good start in terms of bringing Turkey back in line as a traditional Israeli ally.”

Roman said a better deal could have included intelligence sharing, joint military drills on the Mediterranean, access to Turkish airspace, stricter guarantees that Hamas can’t operate in Turkey, and greater Israeli integration into NATO. (During the rift, Turkey blocked Israeli participation in NATO exercises.)

Roman also noted that the deal was made with a Turkish president who has an increasingly dubious record as head of state.

“Erdogan is an Islamist autocrat that is seeking to consolidate power,” said Roman. “He is abusing the media in that country, he is imprisoning human rights activists, he is taking away freedom of the press.”

Roman believes that though the families of the fallen soldiers were made promises over the past two years, the reality of the negotiation process had likely raised hard decisions.

“Netanyahu has to balance these huge global issues with the hearts and minds and needs of individual Israelis,” he said.

Meanwhile, the families of the soldiers intend to hold their ground.

“Right now we are processing the information, and we are considering our next steps,” Reut Gazi, one of Oron Shaul’s cousins, said Wednesday.

For now the protestors plan to remain in front of the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem to push for a reversal or revision of the agreement by Sunday. If that doesn’t work, they may start a nationwide campaign. Either way, she said, “we cannot stand aside.”