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Israel decides to hold Hamas bodies as bargaining chips

The decision came after Hamas released a video showing a mock birthday party for a slain Israeli soldier. Hamas, in turn, slammed the Israeli decision saying it would only produce negative results.

Israel has decided to begin using the bodies of Hamas militants killed in attacks against its citizens as bargaining chips in its efforts to pressure Hamas to return the remains of Israeli soldiers and missing Israeli civilians.

The decision was made by the security cabinet, and it followed the Palestinian group's Saturday release of video footage showing a mock birthday party for Israeli soldier Oron Shaul. The Israeli army believes Shaul was killed in the 2014 Gaza war.

Hamas's military wing, the Al-Qassam Brigades, issued a New Year's Eve statement saying that it had posted online "two video clips to mark the 23rd birthday of the Zionist soldier and prisoner Oron Shaul".

The Israeli army believes that another soldier, Hadar Goldin, was killed along with Shaul two years ago and that Hamas holds their bodies as potential bargaining chips.

"The political-security cabinet discussed standing policy on treatment of the bodies of Hamas terrorists killed during terror attacks and decided that they will not be returned but will be buried," according to a statement posted on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's official Twitter account.

Hamas slams decision

The decision was slammed by Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhum, who said the decision on Hamas corpses was "evidence of criminality and barbaric occupation" by Israel.

"These decisions will not give positive results," he said, but didn't elaborate on the possible consequences.

Hamas claims to be holding two Israeli soldiers whom the army declared dead after they were lost in action during the 2014 Gaza war. The militants also claim to be holding two Israeli civilians who strayed into the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

Israel's new policy allows for bodies to be exhumed and handed back for burial if Hamas agrees to strike deals. In the past, Israel has buried the bodies of slain militants at secret locations in remote parts of the country.

It represents a hardening of Israel's position: during 2016, Israel returned 102 bodies for burial, according to the army.

Israeli officials have previously signaled a willingness to repeat past amnesties of jailed Palestinians in order to recover the two soldiers' remains and the civilians held by Hamas. But Hamas insists Israel must make a preliminary release of prisoners before it will discuss such a deal.

A senior Israeli official said in September that Israel had been holding 18 Palestinians from the enclave as well as the bodies of 19 others since the 2014 Gaza war, and "offered to swap them for the bodies of the two Israeli soldiers." However, Hamas reportedly rejected the offer.

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bik/kl (AFP, Reuters)

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