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Letter from U.S. Muslim Leaders Asks Hamas to Return Bodies of IDF Soldiers

Members of Hamas' Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades march with rocket-propelled grenade launchers during a rally in the Gaza Strip on Aug. 21, 2016. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

WASHINGTON — A rabbi who coordinated with a Muslim member of Congress to spearhead an effort to get Hamas to return the bodies of two Israeli soldiers said the resulting letter is proof “Muslims are speaking out” against terrorism and on behalf of the Jewish state.

Rabbi Marc Schneier, co-founder and president of The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding (FFEU), told PJM at the Israeli-American Council National Conference on Sunday that he reached out to Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), one of two Muslim members of Congress, to get the effort rolling. Rep. Andre Carson (D-Ind.) signed on to the letter drafted by Ellison.

The letter to Hamas leader Khaled Mashal asks for the return of the bodies of Lt. Hadar Goldin and Sgt. Oron Shaul, who were killed in the 2014 conflict in the Gaza Strip. The Goldin family came to D.C. for the conference.

Schneier said he explained to Ellison “how it would be very, very helpful to re-create the coalition” of Jews and Muslims that appealed for the release of Gilad Shalit, who was captured by Hamas in 2006. Shalit was traded five years later for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners whom Israeli officials said were responsible for 569 Israeli deaths.

“As Muslims, we believe the struggle for justice must align with the teachings of the Prophet,” the letter states in part. “…Mr. Goldin and Mr. Shaul are now deceased and it is just and honorable to return the remains to their families.”

Schneier told PJM that the letter, signed by 10 prominent U.S. Muslims including the two congressmen, is a humanitarian request made “in the spirit of Islam.”

The rabbi said his foundation is the “800-pound gorilla” on the issue of Jewish-Islamic relations and has not “just the credibility” but an “unparalleled commitment to combating Islamophobia.”

He said the “very serious people” who signed the letter included leaders from the Islamic Society of North America and the Ground Zero mosque.

Asked about sympathies or links between groups involved in the letter and Hamas, he replied, “Those detractors are ignorant.”

Schneier, who started the Muslims Are Speaking Out campaign with FFEU chairman Russell Simmons, decried the “misperception that Muslims are not speaking out in the face of terrorism, Islamic fanaticism and fundamentalism.” He called the Muslim community “the greatest ally in the fight against Islamic extremism” and noted that the vast majority of ISIS victims are Muslim.

“American Muslims are unfairly under attack in this country,” Schneier said, adding “there’s nothing more Jewish than to fight Islamophobia.”

Of Muslim leaders, he said “the letter and their expression and their sentiments speak volumes.”

“Hamas will make the next move” on whether to return the soldiers’ bodies, but the rabbi hopes his group’s effort can help “begin to galvanize leaders to speak out.”

“There are issues that transcend our political and ideological differences,” Schneier said.

Hamas has demanded this year that Israel free at least 50 prisoners as a precondition to negotiations to return the deceased IDF soldiers.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said earlier this month that Hamas has since rejected all offers to swap Hamas prisoners and bodies from the 2014 conflict for the Israeli soldiers’ remains.

“These things are accepted norms in the world. At the end of every conflict, the sides exchange captives and missing persons — that’s the norm. It was also done in our region, between Israel and Hezbollah — both before and after the Second Lebanon War,” Lior Lotan, the prime minister’s envoy on hostages and missing persons, told a counterterrorism summit.

“In unprecedented fashion, Hamas has refused this offer, and even put forth a precondition for the continuation of the discussions: resolving a case of prisoners who were not from the Gaza Strip at all and have no connection with the Protective Edge war at all,” Lotan said. “Of course, we cannot abide a precondition. It’s not right practically speaking, and it’s not right professionally speaking.”

The Times of Israel reported last year that photos of the slain IDF soldiers were being used in Gaza promotional posters advertising a soccer match between the neighborhoods where Shaul and Goldin were killed.