GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – The head of the International Committee of the Red Cross on Tuesday discussed the fate of two Israeli civilians and the remains of two Israeli soldiers believed to be held by Hamas in a meeting with the leader of the Islamic militant group.
Officials on both sides said the status of the missing Israelis was one of a host of issues discussed in the meeting between ICRC President Peter Maurer and Yehiyeh Sinwar, the Hamas leader in Gaza.
A Hamas official said that Maurer "heard the movement's firm position" Tuesday. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the meeting was closed.
Sinwar has said Hamas will not release any information about the missing Israelis until Israel frees 54 Palestinian prisoners who were re-arrested after being released in a 2011 prisoner swap.
Alyona Synenko, an ICRC spokeswoman, confirmed that the fate of people detained or missing on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were among the many humanitarian issues discussed Tuesday.
"The objective of this visit is to discuss various humanitarian concerns," she said, declining to elaborate on Maurer's discussions with Sinwar.
Maurer also met with f0amilies of Gazans with relatives held in Israeli prisons, spoke to people affected by a 50-day war between Israel and Hamas in 2014, toured Gaza's sewage-contaminated beachfront and met with beneficiaries of ICRC agricultural and medical programs. He also plans to meet Palestinian officials in the West Bank and hold talks in Israel with government officials and relatives of the missing Israelis.
Hamas is believed to be holding the remains of two soldiers killed during the 2014 war. In addition, it is believed to be holding two Israeli civilians who scaled a border fence and entered Gaza. Hamas has not publicly released any pictures or other evidence confirming it is holding the men, and their families have not heard from them.
Hamas, an Islamic militant group that seeks Israel's destruction, has controlled Gaza since ousting troops loyal to the internationally backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2007. Abbas now rules autonomous areas of the West Bank, leaving the Palestinians divided between two rival governments.
Israel, with Egyptian backing, has maintained a blockade over Gaza for the past decade. It says the blockade is needed to prevent Hamas from smuggling weapons, but the closure, along with three wars with Hamas, have hit Gaza's economy hard. Unemployment is over 40 percent, and the territory suffers from chronic power outages of up to 20 hours a day.
Israel and its Western allies consider Hamas a terrorist group and have no official contact with it. But as a humanitarian organization, the ICRC maintains a dialogue with Hamas. Synenko said the "pragmatic discussion" is needed to solve humanitarian problems.