Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman warned on Sunday that Israel "must not repeat the mistakes made with the Shalit deal" amid criticism of the resignation of POWs and MIAs coordinator Col. (res.) Lior Lotan.
IDF soldiers Lt. Hadar Goldin and Sgt. Oron Shaul were both killed during the 2014 Operation Protective Edge in Gaza and their bodies were captured by Hamas. In addition, three Israeli citizens—Abera Mengistu, Hisham al-Sayed and Jumaa Ibrahim Abu-Ghanima—have all entered the Gaza Strip and are believed to be alive and held by Hamas.
The Goldin and Shaul families have both criticized the government over Lotan's departure, demanding a replacement for him is appointed posthaste.
"I accept with understanding and love the criticism by the Goldin and Shaul families and continue being personally committed to returning home Hadar and Oron, as well as our other citizens being held in the Gaza Strip in violation of international law," Lieberman said Sunday.
However, while stressing that he considers returning Israel's soldiers and citizens home to be "of supreme moral and ethical importance," he added that "we must not return to the mistakes we made in the Shalit deal."
Among the 1,027 terrorists released in the 2011 deal that saw captured IDF soldier Gilad Shalit returned to Israel alive were Mahmoud Qawasmeh, "who was released to the strip and funded the abduction of the three Israeli teens," and Yahya Sinwar, "who became the leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip. It is the same Sinwar who is now setting strict demands that don't allow making any progress towards any sort of deal," Lieberman said.
The defense minister went on to say that "202 of the released prisoners in the Shalit deal have been arrested again since then for their involvement in terrorism, 111 of whom are still in Israeli prison, while seven Israelis were murdered because of direct or indirect involvement of prisoners released in that deal."
Therefore, before appointing a replacement for Lotan, Lieberman said it was important to adopt the conclusions of the 2012 Shamgar Commission in full and in that "set clear lines to the State of Israel and envoys on its behalf, but mostly stand firm against our enemies and make it clear to them we have no intention of compromising on Israel's security."
The 2012 Shamgar Commission report, headed by former Supreme Court chief Justice Meir Shamgar, called for stricter positions in negotiations over prisoner swaps. The details of the report remain confidential.
Zehava Shaul, Oron Shaul's mother, slammed Lieberman's remarks, saying he encourages abandoning IDF soldiers. "It is to the glory of the State of Israel that its defense minister, who heads its military system, encourages abandoning IDF soldiers," she said sarcastically. "Unfortunately, the defense minister has yet to internalize that this inaction in bringing back IDF soldiers, who defended Israeli citizens as they spent 50 days in shelters, leads the silent majority in the country not to send their children to serve in combat units."
Lotan, who has done the job voluntarily over the past three years, resigned on Thursday, telling Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the position of POWs and MIAs coordinator is very demanding, both professionally and emotionally, and that in his opinion the coordinator should be replaced every few years.
The families of the POWs and MIAs were not surprised by Lotan's departure. The Goldin family said they "feel we have been abandoned by the government," demanding that Lieberman and Netanyahu "urgently appoint a replacement, implement the cabinet decisions passed in January, and pressure Hamas in every possible and effective way to bring our boys back to Israel."
The Shaul family echoed the Goldin family's call to quickly find a replacement, adding that "Any day of delay in the appointment will prove to us the Israeli government doesn't put the issue of returning our sons at the top of its list of priorities."
The Mengistu family, whose son Abera Mengistu entered the Gaza Strip in September 2014 and is presumed to be held by Hamas, expressed surprise and disappointment at Lotan's resignation. "My son is being held for no fault of his own and his life is in danger," Mengistu's mother said. "I hope there is real commitment by the government to bring him back."
Until a replacement is found for Lotan, the issue of POWs and MIAs will be handled by the Prime Minister's Military Secretary, Brig. Gen. Eliezer Toledano.